- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2005

From combined dispatches

South Florida yesterday braced itself for Hurricane Wilma, which was expected to bring 115-mph winds and potentially devastating floods to the storm-weary state, two days after slamming Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

After slowly crawling across the Caribbean, Wilma picked up speed “like a rocket” as it headed toward the southwest coast of Florida, said forecasters after the hurricane picked up speed and strength yesterday, intensifying to a Category 3 storm expected to make landfall as a Category 2 storm around dawn today.

An estimated 160,000 Florida residents were warned to evacuate, with officials especially concerned about the danger of flooding in the low-lying Key islands.

“I cannot emphasize enough to the folks that live in the Florida Keys: A hurricane is coming,” Gov. Jeb Bush said. “Perhaps people are saying, ‘I’m going to hunker down.’ They shouldn’t do that. They should evacuate, and there’s very little time left to do so.”

In Mexico, Wilma was blamed for four deaths on the resort island of Cozumel and three other deaths on the mainland, where police battled looters in the popular resort town of Cancun.

Police fired into the air to scare looters away from a Cancun shopping center, and looters responded by throwing rocks. Fearing looters might attack tourists, officials evacuated more than 30 foreigners from a downtown area overrun by people raiding stores. Military officials and police stood guard outside businesses and set up checkpoints to seize stolen goods.

“It’s chaos,” said fire official Gregorio Vergara. “They are taking things all over the city.”

At a convenience store, Cancun resident Alex Aguilar took batteries and aspirin. “The window was broken, so we just went in and got what we wanted,” he said.

Some American tourists in Cancun without local currency offered $100 bills for $5 calling cards, while shortages of food were reported on Cozumel.

“Right now, there is nothing to buy on the island,” resident Daniela Ayala told the Associated Press by telephone. “People are in the streets looking for food, and they are starting to get desperate.”

The deaths in Mexico brought Wilma’s overall death toll to at least 17 after mudslides killed 10 persons in Haiti last week.

In Florida, forecasters predicted flooding from a storm surge of up to 15 feet on the state’s southwest coast and 8 feet in the Keys.

At 8 p.m., Wilma was centered about 170 miles west-southwest of Key West and moving northeast at about 15 mph. Hurricane-force wind of at least 74 mph extended up to 85 miles from the center, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. After making landfall early today, the storm was expected to “take off like a rocket headed out over the Atlantic,” hurricane center director Max Mayfield said.

Wilma would mark Florida’s eighth hurricane since August 2004 and the fourth evacuation of the Keys this year.

Only about 20 percent of the Keys’ 78,000 residents fled, said Billy Wagner, senior emergency management director for Monroe County.

“If they don’t get out of there, they’re going to be in deep trouble,” he said.

Officials expressed concern that Keys residents trying to ride out the hurricane could be stranded if Wilma washed out parts of the Overseas Highway, the only road connecting the 110-mile island chain to mainland Florida. The last city-evacuation bus left Key West yesterday morning with only the driver and one passenger.

But many residents went about their normal routines.

“We were born and raised with storms, so we never leave,” Ann Ferguson said from her front porch in Key West. “What happens, happens. If you believe in the Lord, you don’t have no fear.”

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