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Rebecca Kiel and Ron Boucher of Naples enjoyed dinner at Pazzo’s Italian Cafe in downtown Naples on Saturday. ‘‘It looks like Beirut out here, but she wanted to eat outside,’’ Boucher said.
Rebecca Kiel and Ron Boucher of Naples enjoyed dinner at Pazzo’s Italian Cafe in downtown Naples on Saturday. ‘‘It looks like Beirut out here, but she wanted to eat outside,’’ Boucher said. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)

Florida braces for Wilma's landfall

Many not heeding evacuation orders

NAPLES, Fla. -- Hurricane Wilma raced across the Gulf of Mexico last night toward waiting and weary southwest Florida, packing intensifying winds, the potential for tornadoes, and a dangerous storm surge that officials feared could swamp parts of the Florida Keys and inundate low-lying areas of the coast.

Officials were concerned that as the state braced for its eighth hurricane in 14 months, many residents were suffering from hurricane fatigue and failing to heed evacuation orders. Wilma marked the fourth time this year that the Keys faced evacuation, and 80 percent of residents were staying put yesterday.

Residents in Cancun pick through the wreckage as storm moves on. A6.

''The hurricane is coming, and a hurricane is a hurricane," said Governor Jeb Bush, who warned the 160,000 residents in the state's mandatory evacuation zones to heed the order. ''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."

After meandering through the Caribbean to Mexico, Wilma picked up speed and strength yesterday, shooting toward Florida as a Category 3 storm, with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour. It was expected to make landfall before dawn today in the state's southwest corner, probably near Naples and Marco Island, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The core was then expected to travel northeast, slicing across the peninsula.

Forecasters warned of flooding from a storm surge of up to 17 feet on the southwest coast and 8 feet in the Keys, where streets were already running with water last night.

At least three tornadoes were confirmed ahead of the storm, near Fort Drum, Kenansville, and Cocoa Beach, and a waterspout was spotted off Key West.

In Massachusetts, the National Weather Service in Taunton issued a high wind watch last night. Wilma is expected to create a Northeaster that will travel up from the Carolina coast and hit the Bay State with wind gusts up to 65 miles per hour tonight and tomorrow.

In Florida's Collier County, where a major hurricane had not made landfall since 1960, officials at the Naples command center estimated that more than 50 percent of the 300,000 residents had evacuated.

But in the Keys, only 20 percent of the islands' 78,000 residents were thought to have evacuated to the mainland.

''We've had very few people take advantage of our warnings," said Billy Wagner, senior emergency management director for Monroe County, who stressed that no medical services would be available for residents who stayed.

In southwest Florida, many coastal communities had turned into ghost towns by last night. Streets were nearly deserted of vehicles and pedestrians, nearly all businesses had closed, and residents who remained hastily nailed plywood over their windows.

''The city is boarded up," said Naples Police Chief Steve Moore, who estimated that 80 percent of the city's 20,000 residents had left. ''People have been leaving for four days now."

Florida mobilized 2,300 National Guard troops and placed 3,000 more on alert; the state is expected to deal with widespread power outages, flooding from the storm surge, and rain that could dump up to a foot of water on the Sunshine State. Officials urged residents to stockpile enough food, water, and medication for three days.

Although wind damage worried many residents, the predicted storm surge caused the most jitters. ''I'm concerned about water more than anything," said Diane LaPorta, as she made 11th-hour checks of her Naples house, a block from the ocean, before locking up and heading to an inland hotel.

Around the corner, Jen Sweet took pictures of her landlord's plywood-protected home to make a visual record of the storm precautions. ''I'm worried about the storm surge," Sweet said. ''No one has any idea how far the water will come."

An estimated 3,500 people were in shelters across the state, including about 1,300 people in Fort Myers who migrated to a Red Cross shelter in Germain Arena, home to the minor league Florida Everblades hockey team. The evacuees pitched tents on the temporary floor covering the ice, plugged in 12-inch televisions, and set up their children with coloring books.

''I wanted to go with my boyfriend, but she wouldn't let me," said Ally Nelson, 16, nodding toward her mother. ''It's so boring here."

With a white comforter wrapped around her legs, Nelson sat in a seat low in the arena, checking her makeup with a handheld mirror. Her mother, Christine Wienhold, 48, had her feet up a few rows away as she snacked on a bag of carrots. They drove to the arena yesterday morning from their home in Naples, five blocks from the beach.

''It's amazing, a lot of people aren't leaving," Wienhold said. ''They're crazy."

At Palmetto Ridge High School in Collier County, dozens of frail, elderly residents with medical needs arrived in ones and twos during the day. Cots had been set up at the shelter, food was provided, and doctors, nurses, and emergency medical technicians were available.

''I've gone through a lot of these in my 33 years here," said Tom Walsh, 91, a native of Providence. As Walsh sat in his wheelchair, he was comforted by his daughter, Judi Szymanski, who said they hope to return tomorrow to their Naples area home. ''We didn't hesitate to come here," Szymanski said. ''There's so much attention, and nurses all over the place."

On Sanibel Island, a resort near Fort Myers that was ravaged by Hurricane Charley 14 months ago, police checked the IDs of drivers approaching the lone access point, letting only homeowners back. About 200 of the island's 6,300 residents were still on the island, Police Chief Bill Tomlinson said.

''We've had plenty of time to prepare and our residents have taken it seriously," he said.

The few who remained were hard to miss, including a rollerblader in an orange tank top who sped down the main drag, slashing across the center line at times. Lee County Sergeant Joe Poppalardo, patrolling the island, pulled her over to say he had received several complaints of her reckless rollerblading.

''People think there are no rules," said Poppalardo, who also stopped and warned a motorcyclist driving 60 miles per hour in a 25 zone.

Earlier in the day, under bright sunshine, about 100 surfers took advantage of unusually high waves off Naples Pier. Damien Martinez, 20, of Miami, had driven across the state to ride his surfboard on the Gulf coast. Martinez planned to surf until 6 p.m., ride out the storm in his van a few hundred feet from the beach, then plunge back into the ocean after the storm passed.

Despite the festive atmosphere on the pier, Stephen ''Bear" Terstegge of the Naples Beach Patrol was mindful that the sunny skies were temporary. ''If anything, I've said a lot of prayers," he said.

MacQuarrie reported from Naples, Edgers from Fort Myers. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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