Hurricane Wilma Batters Southwest Florida

NAPLES, Florida -- Hurricane Wilma plowed into southwest Florida early Monday with howling 125-kilometer-per-hour winds and pounding waves, swamping Key West and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people as it began a dash across the state toward Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The same storm that brought ruin over the weekend to resort towns along Mexico's Yucatan Coast came ashore in Florida as a strong Category 3 hurricane, but within 2 1/2 hours it had weakened into a Category 2 with winds of 110 kilometers per hour.

"We have been huddled in the living room trying to stay away from the windows. It got pretty violent there for a while," said Eddie Kenny, 25, who was at his parents' home in Plantation near Fort Lauderdale with his wife. "We have trees down all over the place and two fences have been totally demolished, crushed, gone."

In Cuba, huge waves crashed into Havana, swamping neighborhoods up to four blocks inland with floodwaters reaching nearly a meter in some places. Basement apartments were submerged.

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.

Wilma, Florida's eighth hurricane in 15 months, made landfall at 6:30 a.m. local time near Cape Romano, 35 kilometers south of Naples, bringing with it a potential 5.4-meter storm surge, the National Hurricane Center said.

Up to 25 centimeters of rain and tornadoes were forecast for parts of central and southern Florida.

"I looked out our place and I saw a bunch of stuff flying by," said Paul Tucchinio, who was riding out the storm in a condo three blocks from the beach in Naples. "It sounds like someone threw a bunch of rocks against the boards. It's wicked."

The storm flooded large sections of Key West and other areas and knocked out power to more than 300,000 homes and businesses as it raced across the state and began buffeting heavily populated Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on the Atlantic coast.

In Weston, near Fort Lauderdale, Kim DuBois sat in her darkened house with her two children and husband, with the power out and the storm shutters up. For light they used a battery-powered pumpkin lantern they bought for Halloween.

"I could hear tiles coming off the roof," she said. "There are trees on cars and flooding at the end of our street." She added: "Really what I'm afraid of is tornadoes."

A man in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Coral Springs died when a tree fell on him, Broward County spokesman Carl Fowler said.

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

More than 33,000 people were in shelters across the state. But in the low-lying Florida Keys, not even 10 percent of the Keys' 78,000 residents evacuated, Sheriff Richard Roth said.

About 35 percent of Key West was flooded, including the airport, said Jay Gewin, an assistant to the island city's mayor. No travel was possible in or out of the city, he said.

Key West Police Chief Bill Mauldin said the flooding was severe: "[The flooding is] more extensive than we've seen in the past." But he said he would not know the full extent of any damage until the winds died down.

By midmorning, the storm was centered in the middle of the state, and was moving northeast at about 25 kilometers per hour.

By midafternoon, a weaker Wilma was expected to skirt the southern end of Lake Okeechobee and head into the Atlantic off Palm Beach County. By early Wednesday, it was expected to be off the coast of Canada, but forecasters said it may not bring heavy rain because its projected track was far off shore.

David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA personnel were in shelters waiting for the hurricane winds to die down before they could assess the damage and begin relief efforts. He said he was "very concerned" that so many people in the Keys did not evacuate.

Weary forecasters also monitored Tropical Depression Alpha, which became the record-breaking 22nd named storm of the 2005 Atlantic season. Alpha, which drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Sunday, was not considered a threat to the United States.

In Europe, crude oil slipped below $60 as traders expected Wilma to avoid already battered Gulf of Mexico oil producing and refining facilities.