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Hurricane Wilma charged across South Florida in a few turbulent hours Monday (Oct. 23) morning, thrashing neighborhoods on both of the state’s coasts, shattering high-rise windows, pushing seawater over much of the Florida Keys and knocking out power to an estimated 3.4 million homes and businesses.
The New York Times reported that the storm entered the state shortly after dawn near Marco Island on the southwest Gulf Coast as a Category 3 hurricane packing winds of up to 125 miles per hour. Soon, it was traveling at the rapid clip of 25 mph.
It carved a wide path northeast, roiling the Miami and Fort Lauderdale region and finally, seven hours later, roaring into the Atlantic Ocean near West Palm Beach, still a Category 2 storm with winds of 105 mph.
As residents of Florida emerged to assess the damage, Gov. Jeb Bush said the state, which had days to prepare as the storm stalled over the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, had everything it needed to start recovering.
“We’ve got a response team that is second to none,” Gov. Bush said in a Tallahassee news conference. “We will get through this storm and respond quickly.”
R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said that since President Bush had declared the hurricane a major disaster, the agency would immediately begin distributing grants for temporary housing, home repairs and other storm-related expenses.
“Yes, we’re tired of hurricanes,” Paulison said. “But we are prepared.”
At the height of the hurricane, the state’s eighth in 15 months, an estimated 33,000 people had sought refuge in more than 120 shelters throughout the state, officials said.
Gov. Bush said that 3,100 National Guard members had been deployed in the affected areas and that another 3,500 were standing by. He also said 4,000 Florida utility workers were ready to start restoring electricity, as were 6,500 from other states.
Most of the populated areas on the Gulf Coast were on the northern side of the storm, where conditions were less brutal. But they still saw widespread flooding, crumpled mobile homes, airborne roofs and countless downed trees. Early damage estimates were around $2 billion and at least seven people were reported killed in the state.
The storm’s rapid pace across Florida meant that there was less rainfall, with only 8 inches falling on Miami and 6.5 inches in Naples, a fraction of what soaked Yucatán.
In Key West, at the far southern end of the chain of islands connected to the mainland by narrow causeways, officials said as many as 90% of the residents had ignored evacuation orders.