Hurricane Wilma has ploughed into southwest Florida with howling 200kph winds and dashed across the state to the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, blowing out windows in skyscrapers, peeling away roofs and knocking out power to millions of people.
The same storm that brought ruin over the weekend to resort towns along Mexico's Yucatan Coast came ashore in Florida on Monday as a strong Category 3 hurricane, but within hours had weakened into a Category 2 with winds of 169kph.
Early in the afternoon, it was back up to Category 3 with 185kph winds as it swirled out into the open Atlantic on a course that was unlikely to affect the US East Coast.
As it made its away across the state, Wilma caused widespread damage, flattening trees, breaking water mains, littering the streets with signs and downed power lines and turning debris into missiles.
"We have been huddled in the living room trying to stay away from the windows. It got pretty violent there for a while," said Eddie Kenny, 25, who was at his parents' home near Fort Lauderdale with his wife.
"We have trees down all over the place and two fences have been totally demolished, crushed, gone."
In Cuba, rescuers used scuba gear, inflatable rafts and amphibious vehicles to pull almost 250 people from flooded homes in Havana after Wilma sent huge waves crashing into the capital and swamped neighbourhoods up to four blocks inland with a metre of water.
In Cancun, Mexico, troops and federal police moved in to control looting at stores and shopping centres ripped open by the hurricane, and hunger and frustration mounted among Mexicans and stranded tourists.
Nearly 250 people were rescued
from flooded homes in Cuba
President Vicente Fox announced plans to start evacuating about 30,000 frazzled tourists as he worked to restore the profitable image of a carefree beachfront paradise.
Wilma, Florida's eighth hurricane in 15 months and the 21st storm in the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, came ashore in Florida at 6.30am EDT (1030GMT) on Monday near Cape Romano in southwest Florida, the National Hurricane Centre said.
The hurricane is expected to race up the Atlantic Seaboard and reach the coast of Canada by early Wednesday. But forecasters said it will probably stay so far offshore that it will not even bring heavy rain to the eastern United States.
"Most of the impact on the US will be ending in the next several hours," Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Centre, said around midday.
The storm flooded large sections of Key West and other areas and knocked out power to up to 3.2 million homes and businesses as it raced across the state and buffeted heavily populated Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on the Atlantic coast with gusts over 160kph.
Wilma is Florida's eighth hurricane
in 15 months
In Fort Lauderdale, the hurricane blew out windows in skyscrapers.
In downtown Miami, broken glass from skyscrapers littered some streets and sidewalks in the financial district.
A man in a Fort Lauderdale suburb died when a tree fell on him, Broward spokesman Carl Fowler said.
Wilma killed at least three people in Mexico and 13 others in Jamaica and Haiti as it made is way across the Caribbean last week.
More than 33,000 people were in shelters across the state.
More than 33,000 residents have
headed for shelters
No mandatory evacuations were ordered along Florida's heavily populated east coast.
In the low-lying Florida Keys, not even 10% of the Keys' 78,000 storm-tested residents evacuated, Sheriff Richard Roth said. This was the fourth hurricane evacuation of the Keys this year.
At 1pm EDT (1700GMT), Wilma was centred about 105km northeast of West Palm Beach. But the big storm was still slamming the state.
Hurricane-force winds of 119 kph (74 mph) or more extended up to 160km from the centre. Wilma was moving northeast at about 40kph and was expected to pick up the speed.
President George Bush signed a disaster declaration for hurricane-damaged areas and promised swift help.
Bush said food, medicine and
rescue teams were being readied
"We have prepositioned food, medicine, communications equipment, urban search-and-rescue teams," he said. "We will work closely with local and state authorities to respond to this hurricane."
Forecasters also monitored Tropical Depression Alpha, which became the record-breaking 22nd named storm of the 2005 Atlantic season. Alpha, which drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Sunday, was not considered a threat to the United States.