Hurricane Wilma Hits Florida; Cleanup Begins In Mexico

Half of the state is also under a tornado watch.

Hurricane Wilma made landfall in Florida near Cape Romano early Monday morning as a Category 3 storm with wind speeds between 120-125 mph causing widespread flooding and power outages across the state. The storm, which battered Mexico's Yucatan coast on Sunday, had already spawned tornadoes across the state as early as Sunday night on Florida's Atlantic coast near Cocoa Beach.

By mid-morning on Monday (October 24), the storm had weakened slightly to a Category 2 with wind speeds between 100-110 mph as news emerged of the first confirmed death in Florida, caused when a man was struck by a falling tree.

With more than half of Florida under a tornado watch and 22,000 residents already in shelters, the fast-moving storm — speeding through the state at 20-30 mph — was expected to tear across the Southern tip of Florida Monday morning, reaching the Atlantic Ocean east of Lake Okeechobee by late afternoon.

Conditions in Miami-Dade County were so bad that authorities had to stop responding to most 911 calls for help at approximately 6 a.m. on Monday, according to The Miami Herald — standard procedure when winds reach hurricane strength. The paper described the sky as being lit by an eerie blue-green glow as electrical transformers exploded over the Miami International Airport.

Just hours after landfall, more than 2.5 million homes were reported to be without power, as estimated losses from the storm's damage were expected to surpass $2 billion. In a morning news conference, Florida Governor Jeb Bush said, "Don't be fooled by the lull in the storm" as its large eye passed over Palm Beach County, because, he warned, "The west side of the storm will be as strong and intense or maybe even worse as the first part of the storm." Bush, who has asked for a major disaster declaration in 14 Florida counties, said there are reports of "significant" flooding in parts of the Florida Keys, where he urged residents to stay indoors, as many hurricane deaths occur after storms have passed when residents are killed by falling debris, live power lines and other hazards.

Wilma is the seventh hurricane to hit Florida in the past 14 months (see "Florida Braces For Possible Hit From Hurricane Wilma"), and tropical-storm-force winds were projected to extend more than 230 miles from its center. The storm was expected to kick up high seas and bring heavy rain to most of south Florida, from the Florida Keys to the Atlantic Coast cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Damage reports were slow in coming in the early morning hours, but a senior emergency manager told the Herald that the Atlantic Ocean side of Key West sustained extensive flooding, with reports of some parts of the city under four feet of water.

By Sunday night, when evacuation routes were closed, Florida officials were worried that not enough Florida Keys residents had heeded warnings to leave the area, with as many as 80 percent of homeowners attempting to ride Wilma out. According to CNN, there were no shelters open in the Keys — which were expected to be hit by 5-to-8-foot storm surges — because the islands lack structures that can withstand hurricane-force winds.

But with advance warnings of 8-to-12-foot storm surges — and up to 8 inches of rain in areas already well over their annual averages — cities such as Naples were practically abandoned in advance of Monday's landfall, with an estimated 80 percent of its 300,000 residents evacuated before Wilma hit.

Heeding the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, Governor Bush had already put in place 2,400 Florida National Guard troops to help with everything from traffic management to search-and-recovery missions, with an additional 3,000 troops on standby. Governor Bush had also readied boats, hovercrafts, tons of ice, tens of thousands of ready-to-eat meals and three dozen Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters to help in the Keys once the storm had passed.

Hurricane conditions are expected to remain in Florida until midday before moving out into the Atlantic.

At one point, Wilma packed 175 mph winds and was the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record. It has so far claimed nearly 20 lives in Cuba, Mexico and across the Caribbean.

Over the weekend, Wilma smashed the Yucatan Coast's international airport, eroded beaches and severely damaged a number of large resort hotels. With food scarce in the wake of the storm, looting began as soon as Wilma had passed on Sunday, as supplies were limited in the affected regions. Some of the 20,000 tourists who spent more than 60 hours in cramped, hot shelters around Cancun emerged once Wilma passed and searched for food after eating nothing more than tuna and crackers for three days, according to a report by The New York Times. Officials predict it could take a year or more for the region's beachfront hotels and other tourist destinations to rebuild and recover.