Hurricane Wilma slammed into Florida's east coast on Monday with a sucker punch -- not hard from the Atlantic but from the Gulf of Mexico, roaring across the width of the state, barely losing force.
Most people here had gone to bed the night before believing the storm would lose steam by the time it made landfall or would at least hit the Everglades and stall; only mobile home residents were told to evacuate.
Instead, Wilma arrived here a Category 3 storm, smashing windows and ripping roofs from Miami to Palm Beach. Palm fronds flew, trees toppled, water mains burst and cars flipped like so many Matchbox toys. The downtown Brickell Avenue corridor, home to the city's major skyscrapers, was littered with broken glass. At least five boats, including a 48-foot yacht, sank at their moorings at just one of the many harbors here.
"It was like a grenade went off. All the windows and doors blew off," said Richard Olsen, who lives with his wife, Barbara Gehring, 48, in the penthouse apartment of a historic landmark building on Miami Beach.
"Last year, Miami Beach was under a mandatory evacuation three times, and we'd stayed for all three," Gehring said. "We just didn't think this storm was going to be that bad."
Olsen, Gehring and a neighbor, as well as their two dogs, were huddled in the hallway between the couple's bedroom and a closet. "We had a package of ham, a bottle of vodka and a pillow," Gehring said.
Across the street at the Traymore Hotel on Collins Avenue, an SUV was knocked on its side and remained precariously perched on the crest of the hotel's driveway Monday afternoon. The winds blew a yellow kayak like a leaf up the street, bow to stern in cartwheels. A dumpster hurtled across a parking lot and back again like a pinball.
The southern side of the storm was its fiercest, and winds topped 104 mph at Fort Lauderdale's airport as a police spokesman on a local radio station said, "Common sense must prevail. Please stay inside. We don't need any additional headaches."
Winds thrashed the Broward County Courthouse and shattered windows at the Fort Lauderdale school administration building. Just over the Miami-Dade county line in Hollywood, a construction crane fell over by the Diplomat Hotel, blocking a highway.
Urban Zarabozo, 67, said Wilma caused far more damage to his Miami Beach condo than Hurricane Andrew, which devastated this area in 1992. "One window blew in, one window blew out," he said, waving his hand.
At the height of the storm, a South Beach restaurant called Charlie's caught fire.
"This fire was fully involved by the time we got on the scene," said Jeff Duckworth of the Miami Beach Fire Department, who said it was unclear whether the storm had caused the fire. During the peak of the hurricane, the department's communications systems failed. "At 8 a.m. we finally heard about it, and we were a block away."
He agreed that the damage appeared worse than that from most recent storms.
"Overall for Miami Beach, the damage is looking by far worse than Hurricane Andrew," Duckworth said. "I saw a white Ford van rolling down West Avenue, and it landed upside down on a Camaro's hood."
Gallery owner Cora Bettcher, 38, watched the restaurant fire from her window with a mop in hand. Her gallery in the Morningside neighborhood, up Biscayne Boulevard, usually floods. "I won't know how bad this storm is until I can assess the damage tomorrow," she said. Bettcher has been in Miami since 1995 and did not expect Wilma to be so intense. "I was so scared I went into the bathroom at 6:30 a.m.," she said. "The wind was picking up."
The incoming traffic on the causeways to Miami Beach slowed to a crawl as police checked IDs to dissuade would-be looters. But authorities said there was looting, anyway.
"I saw a young man carrying ladies' bags and high-heel shoes on Alton Road," Duckworth said. "I stopped him and asked him what he was doing with the stuff. . . . It was blowing so hard, he nearly fell down three times as he was running away from me."
But the fast-moving storm meant a quick return to normal for those places left undamaged. By early afternoon, Wilma had blown out to sea and a few tourists returned to a bar on Ocean Drive, many ordering hurricanes.
Ilan Segal, general manager of the Hotel Victor, said his establishment had no air conditioning. Its new generators kept the hotel's big refrigerators operating, though, and, just as important, maintained the 1,000-gallon aquarium in the lobby, which is home to 22 Pacific moon jellies.
Segal said the hotel would not reopen to the general public on Monday. "However," he said, "I am happy to report that our jellyfish and 12 guests have survived."