MIAMI – The worst hurricane season in history crashed through South Florida’s back door Monday, ripping from Naples on the west coast through the Everglades to blast Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the Keys with unexpected devastation, damaging thousands of homes, shattering thousands of office-tower windows and leaving millions of people shaken and without power.

In Broward County around Fort Lauderdale, authorities called Hurricane Wilma the worst storm to hit that county since Hurricane King in 1950. At least four people died. Broward imposed a countywide curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Miami-Dade police made at least six arrests for looting. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez ordered a countywide curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and it may be extended into Tuesday night. Service on Miami-Dade’s Metrorail system was suspended because of damage.

Also heavily affected were much of Palm Beach County, the Florida Keys and portions of southwest Florida, especially rural Glades and Hendry counties.

Now, the cleanup and the insurance claims and the repairs begin – again.

“I guess I’m going to be one of several hundred thousand looking for a roofer,” said Susan Schur, who lives in the Miami suburb of Kendall.

Search-and-rescue teams were reassigned from the Naples area and dispatched to Glades and Hendry, where mobile-home parks and low-lying single-family homes were smashed.

A falling tree killed one man in Coral Springs, authorities said. A Palm Beach County man died in Loxahatchee when a tree hit his car. Another man in rural Collier County was killed when a roof collapsed on him, possibly after being hit by a tree.

Several other bodies were found, and at least one person died of a heart attack during the storm, but authorities couldn’t immediately confirm that the deaths were related to the hurricane.

Regionally, Wilma gouged much wider damage – though thankfully less intense – than Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 monster that flattened much of south Miami-Dade in 1992.

At one point, Wilma’s eye simultaneously touched five counties – Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier, Monroe and Hendry. President Bush declared 20 Florida counties a major disaster area.

Incredibly, Wilma was the eighth hurricane to strike or brush Florida in 14 months. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which brushed through the region before gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico, had presented local problems, but this one had South Florida written all over it.

“I think it is a blessing to be alive,” said Miguel Cabral, who narrowly avoided being struck by a falling construction crane in Miami Beach. Another crane collapsed in Hallandale Beach.

In the storm’s immediate aftermath, only a few reports surfaced of deep-rooted structural damage, but gusts well above 100 mph crushed boat warehouses in Sunny Isles Beach and Deerfield Beach.

Seawater severed U.S. 1 around mile markers 31, 73 and 110 in the Florida Keys, which suffered extensive damage. Traffic lights were down throughout the region. Every hospital in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties relied at some point on generator power, according to state officials.

Miami International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International were closed Monday and might be closed today.

More than 3.2 million customers were without power in 28 counties, including 1.8 million in Miami-Dade and Broward and the entire city of Homestead. All but 5,000 of the 59,000 customers in the Florida Keys were without power.

Utility officials said full restoration could take weeks. Home repairs will take months – or years.

“It will be Christmas before we get cleaned off,” said Bob Brumm of Biscayne Park.

In Broward, many roofs were severely damaged in Pompano Beach, Coral Springs and elsewhere.

Fire stations reported major damage. Water mains broke and residents of Tamarac, Plantation and Pompano Beach were advised to boil water before using it.

Among the thousands of damaged homes: a house in Davie owned by David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and former chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department.

“I talked to my wife,” Paulison said in Washington, D.C. “We lost roofing tiles and our prized pink grapefruit tree.”

Hundreds of windows blew out of office buildings in downtown Fort Lauderdale, primarily in the courthouse area, and in downtown Miami, particularly along the Brickell Avenue business corridor.

“It looks like an explosion,” said Carmen Rodriguez, who lives in the Brickell area.

All windows – 14 stories worth – were blown out of the Broward County School District building in Fort Lauderdale. Biology work sheets and other school district paperwork flapped along streets near the building.

More than 100 windows blew out of an unoccupied 10-story South Shore Hospital building in Miami Beach.

The first window surrendered just after 7:30 a.m. For the next 2 1/2 hours, they popped out one by one. Soon, furniture, slabs of drywall and shreds of yellow insulation flew through the jagged openings.

“I looked outside – it was raining glass,” said Ralph Cellazo, the building’s plant manager.

In Sunny Isles Beach, two aluminum warehouses filled with hundreds of boats collapsed in a heap of twisted metal and fiberglass. Another boat storage facility collapsed in Deerfield Beach.

After devastating parts of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Wilma landed along Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast as a major Category 3 storm. It rolled through the region with lightning speed, calculated at 25 mph.

In many cases, what the storm’s front half left behind, the second half took away. Barrel tiles peeled off roofs like paper, often slamming through the windows of parked cars.

Gusts of 116 mph were reported near Key Biscayne, 102 mph in Lake Okeechobee, 101 mph at Palm Beach International Airport and 95 mph at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, according to the National Weather Service.

The Florida Keys came under particularly intense attack. Instruments measured wind gusts of 120 mph at Cudjoe Key, 101 mph at Sombrero Key and 74 mph at Long Key.

“We have a real disaster here,” Key West Police Chief Bill Mauldin told a Key West city commissioner. “We are in sad shape right now.”

Merzer, DeMarzo and Negrete report for The Miami Herald. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Susan Anasagasti, Jennifer Babson, Erika Bolstad, Therasa Bradley, Elinor J. Brecher, Cara Buckley, Marc Caputo, Lesley Clark, Frank Davies, Jesus Diaz Jr., Jack Dolan, Manny Garcia, Carolyn Guniss, Monica Hatcher, Eric Kalis, Mary Ellen Klas, Phil Long, Jim Murphy, Aldo Nahed, Susannah A. Nesmith, David Ovalle, Hannah Sampson, Amy Sherman, Nicholas Spangler, Carli Teproff, Ben Torter, Nicole White and Dave Wilson.

(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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