Millions left without power as Wilma floods Florida

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The Independent US

Hurricane Wilma ripped through southern Florida and Cuba yesterday, killing at least three people and causing massive flooding in several towns as well as the Key West holiday island.

After lumbering across the Yucatan peninsula, the storm strengthened and gathered speed when it turned towards Florida.

Packing winds of more than 120 mph, Wilma made landfall before dawn as a category 3 hurricane, bringing with it storm surges of up to 10ft. It hammered the highly-populated centres of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach and left millions of people without electricity.

The speed of the storm was both a blessing and curse. As Wilma raced across the state at 20mph or more, rainfall was relatively modest. But so fast did it move that it remained a category 2 hurricane even as it reached the east coast.

West Palm Beach was hit by winds of 105mph or more. In Cuba, Wilma spa-red Havana a direct hit, but sent 90mph gusts howling through the capital. Huge surging waters crashed over Havana's Malecon sea wall, flooding coastal neighbourhoods and paralysing the city. Rescuers had to use rowing boats and makeshift rafts to ferry stranded residents to higher ground.

"I've never seen the sea come in so far, not even in the storm of the century [of 1993], and it is still rising," Edith Valdez, a 44-year resident of central Havana, told reporters.

The worst flooding was around the Riviera Hotel, built by the Mafia boss Meyer Lansky before the 1959 Communist revolution.

On Key West, the southernmost of the string of islands stretching down from the tip of Florida, Wilma submerged streets under 5ft of water. No travel was possible in or out of the island.

According to Jay Gewin, an assistant to the mayor, 35 per cent of the city was flooded, including the airport and US Route 1, the highway that connects the islands and the mainland by causeways, which was flooded some 10 miles south of Key Largo.

Wilma's arrival was announced by at least four tornadoes, including one near Kennedy Space Centre.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami now expects the storm to roar north just off the east coast of the United States before reaching Canada late to-night. Though unlikely to pose any direct threat to land, stormy weather, with winds of up to 50 mph, was forecast for New York City today.

Across the entire US south, residents are hoping that Wilma - the eighth hurricane to slam into Florida in the past 15 months - marks the end of the most severe hurricane period since records began in 1851, although, there is still a month of the season left.

This year has seen an unprecedented 22 named storms, among them three of the most powerful in history: Katrina which devastated New Orleans and caused a record $30bn of damage; followed by Rita a few weeks later; and now Wilma which, for a brief period last week, was the strongest hurricane ever, with sustained winds of over 175 mph.

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