Hurricane Wilma swept through the southern state of Florida on Monday. When it first hit land, Wilma was a Category 3 storm, on a scale from one to five, with maximum winds of more than 200 kilometers per hour, but the National Weather Service says it is now a Category 2 storm, with winds of more than 160 kilometers.
Millions of people in heavily populated south Florida took shelter from Wilma, the seventh hurricane to hit the state in the last 15 months. The center of the intense storm made landfall at sunrise south of Naples, on Florida's southwest coast, then spent about five hours crossing the Florida peninsula before reaching the Atlantic Ocean near West Palm Beach, on Florida's east coast.
From the state's emergency management center in Tallahassee, Florida Governor Jeb Bush urged residents to stay inside until the storm's winds and rainfall diminish. "There are reports of significant flooding in the Keys," he said. "Onshore winds from the Florida Bay will continue this morning, so water will likely be slow to recede in the Florida Keys and other parts of the state. There have been reports of several tornado touchdowns in central Florida since last night, and the threat for tornadoes across the eastern side of the peninsula will continue for next few hours."
Governor Bush said that more than 2.5 million people were without electricity because of Hurricane Wilma. There was extensive flooding and many initial reports of damage to buildings and homes. The first reported fatality was a man who ventured out during the height of the hurricane to inspect damage to his home. He was killed by a falling tree.
Governor Bush said he was distressed that most people in the Keys, on Florida's southern trip, stayed at home, in some cases in mobile homes, instead of heeding mandatory evacuation orders.
"I'm very, very concerned and very, very worried and I don't know what else one can do. The local officials were clear about evacuation. From this place here we made it quite clear that people needed to evacuate," said Governor Bush. "In a free society, you can't force people to do what's in their best interests, but I just hope and pray that we don't have loss of life because of it."
President Bush, the Florida governor's brother, also expressed concern about the storm and said he has been in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, to ensure relief was on the way.
"I signed a major disaster declaration today," he said. "We have prepositioned food, medicine, communications equipment, urban search and rescue teams. We will work closely with local and state authorities to resond to this hurricane."
Wilma killed 17 people in the Caribbean before pounding Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It then strengthened and headed directly toward south Florida.
This year's hurricane season is the worst ever for the Atlantic / Caribbean region. The area of U.S. territory that suffered hurricane damage this year is approximately as large as Great Britain, and one of the storms, Hurricane Katrina, is ranked as the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. Also, there have been so many storms that the National Weather Service has gone through the Roman alphabet and is now using the Greek alphabet to name tropical storms, which is why the latest tropical storm was called Alpha. The hurricane season officially ends November 30.