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Wilma leaves 6M without power in Florida
Updated: 2005-10-25 20:18

Beginning an agonizing, all-too-familiar process, Floridians lined up for generators, chain saws and other clean-up supplies only hours after Hurricane Wilma cut a costly, deadly swath across the peninsula.

A sailboat sits on the sidewalk in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, Monday, Oct. 24, 2005 in Aventura, Fla. Wilma knifed 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. [AP]

The storm slammed across the state in about seven hours Monday, causing billions in insured damage and leaving 6 million people without electricity. Wilma was blamed for at least six and possibly as many as eight deaths statewide.

Officials in the state's three most populous areas — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties — were prepping to distribute ice, water and other items to storm-struck residents Tuesday, while utility-restoration efforts could stretch into weeks.

"It will be days or weeks before we are back to normal," Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said.

President Bush promised swift help for the storm-ravaged areas. He signed a disaster declaration and was briefed on the situation by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, acting FEMA director David Paulison and Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

"We have pre-positioned food, medicine, communications equipment, urban search-and-rescue teams," the president said. "We will work closely with local and state authorities to respond to this hurricane."

The hurricane arrived as a Category 3 and littered the landscape with damaged signs, awnings, fences, billboards, roof tiles, pool screens, street lights and electrical lines.

Felled trees and blown roofs dotted expressways, and all three of South Florida's major airports — Miami International, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Palm Beach — were closed, halting air travel.

"Miami is a major point, and this is a major disruption," said John Hotard, a spokesman for American Airlines — which has a major hub in Miami.

At a Home Depot in Weston, about 22 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, about 100 people stood outside in line Monday night, many seeking generators, propane tanks and other supplies. They were being let in 10 at a time to prevent overcrowding.

"Nobody's arguing, nobody's fighting, nobody's pushing," said Garry Greenough, who had 10 trees fall in his yard, one on his home. He needed a chain saw to cut the debris.

At 5 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Wilma's center was located about 310 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C. The system was still a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds, and was moving incredibly fast for a tropical system — 53 mph. It was expected to lose its tropical characteristics over cooler Atlantic waters late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

Yet the mainland may still get one last brush with Wilma. It was expected to link up with an area of low pressure already off the coast, raising fears about renewed flooding in areas already hit hard by eight consecutive days of rain earlier this month.

A flood watch was issued for Tuesday covering most of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, along with parts of northern Connecticut and southern New Hampshire. By midnight Monday, heavy rain was falling across New Jersey.

Unseasonably cool temperatures hovered over much of Florida early Tuesday, meaning the lack of air conditioning wasn't making a tough situation even more unbearable for those in Wilma's path.

Officials warned residents to boil water in parts of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. A water main breach in downtown Miami sprayed water 15 feet in the air.

"We've lived here 37 years and we've never had a hurricane like this," said Paul Kramer, 71, of Tamarac, in Broward County. "We didn't expect this. This one got our attention."

In Key West, Chuck Coleman's routine also was broken. Normally this time of year, his two charter fishing boats would be packed with out-of-towners hoping to chase sailfish.

But on Monday he was standing on the dock, losing perhaps $1,000 a day until the customers come back. Although the dock took a beating and the fish freezer is a loss, the boats weren't damaged by Wilma. But they can't run if there's no one to go fishing.

"Without tourists we die," said Coleman. "There is no other form of income."

Eqecat Inc., a risk modeling firm, said early estimates projected that Wilma's insured losses would range from $2 billion to $6 billion. AIR Worldwide Corp. estimated that insurance companies will have to pay claims ranging from $6 billion to $9 billion. Risk Management Solutions estimated a range of $6 billion to $10 billion.

Authorities confirmed that two people were dead in Collier County, two in Palm Beach County, one in Broward County and one in St. Johns County. Before hitting Florida, the storm killed at least six people in Mexico and 13 others in Jamaica and Haiti as it made is way across the Caribbean.

There were reports early Tuesday of a third death in Palm Beach and a second in Broward, although officials in both counties could not immediately provide confirmation of those fatalities.

To underscore the storm's vast reach, a tornado touched down near Melbourne on the east coast, 200 miles from landfall, damaging an apartment complex. No one was injured.

Wilma, the eighth hurricane to strike Florida in 15 months, prompted Monique Kilgore to use a handsaw and shears to get rid of debris in front of her Fort Lauderdale home.

"I want my house to look nice," she said. "I'm also bored. I can't sit in the house any longer. No power, no lights — you know."

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