Source Pravda.Ru

Wilma ravages Florida

Hurricane Wilma sweeped through Florida with winds up to 125 mph Monday, shattering windows in skyscrapers, peeling away roofs and knocking out power to 6 million people, with still a month left to go in the busiest Atlantic storm season on record.

At least six deaths were blamed on the hurricane in Florida, bringing the toll from the storm's march through the tropics to 25.

After a slow, weeklong journey that saw it pound Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula for two days, Wilma made a mercifully swift seven-hour dash across lower Florida, from its southwestern corner to heavily populated Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast.

The insurance industry estimated insured losses in Florida at $2 billion to $9 billion. Officials said it was the most damaging storm to hit the Fort Lauderdale area since 1950.

The 21st storm of the 2005 season - and the eighth hurricane to hit Florida in 15 months - howled ashore around daybreak just south of Marco Island as a Category 3, cutting electricity to the entire Florida Keys. A tidal surge of up to 9 feet swamped parts of Key West in chest-high water, and U.S. 1, the only highway to the mainland, was flooded.

As it moved across the state, Wilma weakened to a Category 2 with winds of 105 mph. But it was still powerful enough to flatten trees, flood streets, break water mains, knock down signs, turn debris into missiles and light up the sky with the blue-green flash of popping transformers.

By early afternoon, Wilma had swirled out into the open Atlantic, back up to 115-mph Category 3 strength but on a course unlikely to have much effect on the East Coast. Forecasters said it would stay well offshore.

Wilma brought 8 inches of rain to Miami-Dade County, nearly 6 1/2 to Naples and 3 to Fort Lauderdale. The flooding could well have been worse if the storm had lingered over the state instead of racing straight through, National Hurricane Center meteorologist Mark McInerney said.

More than one-third of the state's residents lost power.

Wilma also killed at least six people in Mexico and 13 others in Jamaica and Haiti as it made is way across the Caribbean.

In Cuba, rescuers used scuba gear, inflatable rafts and amphibious vehicles to pull nearly 250 people from their flooded homes in Havana after Wilma sent huge waves crashing into the capital city and swamped neighborhoods up to four blocks inland with 3 feet of water.

In Cancun, Mexico, troops and federal police moved in to control looting at stores and shopping centers ripped open by the hurricane, and hunger and frustration mounted among Mexicans and stranded tourists. President Vicente Fox announced plans to start evacuating some 30,000 frazzled tourists.

Wilma's arrival in Florida came five days after it astounded forecasters with terrifying Category 5 winds of 175 mph. At one point, it was the most intense storm - as measured by internal barometric pressure - on record in the Atlantic basin.

Wilma shared space in the Atlantic with Tropical Depression Alpha, which became the record-breaking 22nd named storm of the 2005 season. Alpha, which drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Sunday, was not considered a threat to the United States.

President Bush, bitterly criticized for a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, signed a disaster declaration for hurricane-damaged areas and promised swift action to help Wilma's victims, the AP reports.

V.Y.

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