KEY WEST, Fla., Oct 24 (Reuters): A strengthening Hurricane Wilma lashed southern Florida Monday as it raced toward the densely populated Miami area after pounding Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and killing 17 people on a rampage through the Caribbean.
At one point the most intense hurricane on record in the Atlantic, Wilma weakened after hammering Cancun and Cozumel for three days with punishing winds and rains, destroying homes and ruining luxury hotels.
But the vast and menacing storm strengthened again to a Category 3 hurricane, carrying 115-mph (185-kph) winds toward Florida, where storm- weary residents largely ignored evacuation orders. Category 3 storms can cause extensive damage.
"We were hoping that it would weaken some before it makes landfall," Max Mayfield, director of the US National Hurricane Centre, told Miami's WFOR television. "We're not certain that will happen now."
The centre of the storm was expected to come ashore in Florida around daybreak, possibly near the wealthy city of Naples on the southwest coast.
The streets of the Florida Keys, a 110-mile (175-km) island chain no more than 16 feet (5 metres) above sea level at its highest point and connected to the Florida mainland by a single road, were deserted and dark as the winds and rains picked up overnight, and power went out block by block.
Seawater sloshed into downtown streets in Key West. Fatigued after having been forced to evacuate for three earlier hurricanes this season, and after waiting many days for Wilma to near the United States, no more than 7 per cent of the Keys' 80,000 residents fled ahead of Wilma, officials said.
The last city evacuation bus left Key West Sunday morning with only the driver and one passenger despite fears that Wilma's storm surge could wash out the Overseas Highway and strand residents without power, water or telephone lines.
In southwest Florida, residents crowded restaurants and bars Sunday evening in Naples and seemed to pay little heed to warnings the hurricane could bring a tidal surge of up to 17 feet (5.2 metres) to the area.
Wilma was the eighth hurricane to strike Florida in a little over 14 months, an unprecedented display of nature's fury.
The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends on Nov. 30, became the busiest since records began 150 years ago with the formation Saturday of the 22nd named tropical cyclone, Alpha.