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After pummeling Mexico, Hurricane Wilma barrels toward Florida

By Martin Merzer and Susana Hayward

, Jennifer Babson and Cara Buckley

MIAMI—Leaving devastation and at least 20 deaths in its wake, Hurricane Wilma roared away from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Sunday and accelerated toward South Florida with 105 mph winds.

Tourists fleeing the resort city of Cancun described a tropical playground devastated by high winds and high water.

"Cancun is all under water. It reaches for 4 miles, 20 feet high. It's like driving through an ocean," said Anthony Stiles, 31, from Virginia Beach, Va.

"There is nothing in Cancun. There is no electricity, there is no water, there is no food, people are starving. And we had no news about what was going on. Officials wouldn't tell us anything," said Lisa Half, who with Stiles and two other friends were driving to safety in a taxi when they ran into 6 feet of water 50 miles west of Cancun.

They managed to push their floating taxi up the ramp of a car carrier.

Amid still-pouring rain, others waited to cross the flooded Highway 180 back to Cancun, to bring food and find out how their families are. There are no telephones, Internet or any functioning communication. Entire malls were destroyed.

Officials said 35,000 tourists—30,000 of them Americans—remained stranded in the town.

In Florida, residents of a place hit or brushed by seven hurricanes in the last 14 months and now becoming known as the Here We Go Again State were philosophical as Wilma turned their way.

"You just roll with the punches, honey," Arlene White, 54, said Sunday as she struggled to attach a plywood storm shutter to her home near Miami. "We live in Florida."

South Florida shuttered and shuddered, preparing for sustained tropical storm winds above 39 mph and bursts of hurricane wind above 74 mph, beginning Sunday night and continuing until Monday afternoon.

Depending on Wilma's path, it could be South Florida's worst weather since Hurricane Charley opened nature's historic barrage of the state on Aug. 13, 2004.

Forecasters and emergency managers warned of tornadoes, at least 4 to 8 inches of rain, and severe coastal flooding in the Florida Keys and in Naples, Marco Island and elsewhere along the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida.

"It's going to be a rocky ride," said Tony Carper, Broward County's director of emergency management.

And a dangerous one.

Wilma already was responsible for seven deaths in the severely damaged Yucatan and 13 deaths in Haiti and Jamaica.

Residents of the Keys were urged to leave before the sea severed U.S. 1, the only escape route. Some causeways on the mainland also could flood late Sunday or early Monday, forecasters said.

Officials in the Keys and in Tallahassee, the state capital, however, worried that some Keys residents were defying evacuation orders.

"All I can tell people in the Keys who are going to ride this one out is `One of these days, your luck is going to run out,'" said Craig Fugate, the state's emergency operations director.

Officials urged everyone to respect the storm, remain inside and exercise extreme caution after it passes. Many storm-related deaths and injuries occur during the clean-up phase.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez boiled down the official message to two words: "Stay home."

One small consolation: At least the waiting was over. Predicted for nearly a week to be heading to Florida, Wilma had dawdled in the Caribbean and—disastrously—over Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

"It's like in elementary school, when a bully told you he was going to beat you up at 3 o'clock," said Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez. "That's what Wilma has been doing to us."

Now that it was en route, residents of mobile homes in Miami-Dade and Broward were ordered to evacuate, and many didn't have to be told twice.

"You have to be an idiot to stay in a mobile home," said Ralph Quick, who's lived in the Everglades Lakes Mobile Home Park for about 16 years. "They are only built to take so much."

Wilma's core was expected to reach Florida's southwest Gulf Coast at around 7 a.m. Monday, possibly as a Category 2 storm with 100 mph winds, though forecasters said Wilma's intensity at landfall could vary.

Then it's expected to race across the southern half of state at about 30 mph, likely carving a wide path of destruction.

Five to 8 feet of storm surge—the dome of water that surrounds the center of a hurricane—could wash over the Keys. Eight to 13 feet could swamp the southwest coast and wash deeply into the Everglades.

In Palm Beach County, in the center of the danger zone, mandatory evacuation began at 1 p.m. for residents of mobile homes, low-lying areas, substandard housing and recreational vehicles.

Along the south shore of Lake Okeechobee, where a 1928 hurricane caused a flood that killed more than 2,500 people, residents who've spent their lives in the shadow of the 34- to 38-foot-high Herbert H. Hoover Dike expressed confidence in the levee system.

The storm could pass right over the lake, but they believe it's in better shape than the levees in New Orleans that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

"They weren't prepared," said Earnest Robinson, a street maintenance worker in Belle Glade, as he caught catfish. "They weren't equipped like we are."

In Naples, residents finished last minute preparations for the storm. About half of the 300,000 people in low-lying evacuation zones in Naples and the rest of Collier County had left, according to Jaime Sarbaugh, a spokeswoman for the county's emergency management office.

Marco Island, a barrier island south of Naples, resembled a ghost town.

Many of the region's residents are seasonal, and a few snowbirds were kicking themselves for returning so soon.

"I came down too doggone early," lamented Paul Sutton, 96, who drove down from Ontario, Canada, about a month ago to winter at his home in Naples' Enchanted Acres recreational vehicle park.

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(Merzer, of The Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Hayward, Knight Ridder's Mexico City bureau chief, reported from the Yucatan. Jennifer Babson of The Miami Herald reported from Key West, and Cara Buckley of the Herald reported from Naples. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Jerry Berrios, Erika Bolstad, Lesley Clark, Oscar Corral, Wanda J. DeMarzo, Ashley Fantz, Mary Ellen Klas, Phil Long, Tere Figueras Negrete, David Ovalle, Amy Sherman and Nicole White, all of The Miami Herald, contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-WILMA

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051023 Hurricane Wilma

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