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Dispatches from the hurricane zone

NBC News correspondents report on Hurricane Wilma from Cuba to Florida.
/ Source: NBC News

Hurricane Wilma roared ashore in the predawn darkness, targeting southwest Florida and packing winds of 125 miles per hour. The Category 3 storm peeled back roofing shingles, toppled huge trees, knocked down traffic lights and flattened signs from their usual perches. Monday night, electricity is out across much of South Florida.

At various times of the day, Wilma, 400 miles across, covered 70 percent of the state, from as far north as Jacksonville to the tip of the state, Key West. More than 12 million residents experienced hurricane or tropical force winds.

In Key West, police estimate 40 percent of the island submerged. Storm surge pushed water in some spots thigh high. Even portions of famed Duval Street are underwater.

The eye of the hurricane, with the most intense winds, passed over tiny Everglades City, causing severe damage. Monday, the only way for this community of fishermen to get around was by boat or on swamp buggies.

Wilma raced across the state, hitting the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas with more punch than residents had expected. One man was killed by a falling tree. High-rise windows shattered. In the chaos, a handful of residents in Miami-Dade looted a convenience store.

Monday night, experts estimated losses could exceed $6 billion.

Punta Gorda, devastated by Hurricane Charley last year, this morning woke up to Wilma knocking at the door. The wind and the rain were coming out of the backside of the storm, out of the northeast. Coming down so hard, it stung the face.

By noon, Wilma was gone. And Police Sgt. Jim Kirdy was grateful they'd been spared the worst.

“This is pretty much it,” says Kirdy. “We had some street flooding and some downed trees, that's about it.”

Still, for some, this was one storm too many.

“You know,” asked resident Mark Witt, “What kind of future do you have if your house is demolished every year?”

Wilma hit hard here, downing trees and power lines, setting golf carts on fire at one country club. And it hit twice. First the eastern side of the hurricane — usually the strongest — swept through. Then, in a surprise, the storm strengthened and delivered a stronger hit from the back half — the typically weaker western side.

A nearby tree was tilted the other way before the storm, and we sort of joked that that tree might find its way back upright. It has done that and then some.

Hurricane Wilma left some churchgoers in tears.

“It kind of breaks my heart,” says church member Gary. “This is all that's left of Our Savior Lutheran Church.”

“One of the fellows on the phone told me the church was all over the street,” says Pastor Stephen Wipperman. “You come and look and it certainly is.”

But the congregation is determined to rebuild.

“What's happened here,” Wipperman says, “is going to work out for our good somehow.”

Faith and hope in the wake of a terrible storm.

In this fishing town of Playa Baracoa, west of Havana, the hurricane high tide brought disaster. Huge rolling waves tore through old wood-and-brick houses, pushing debris over the roads. Nervous police ordered people to leave town before the tide rose higher. Those who couldn't walk were carried by others.

Isabel Pua had evacuated with the rest of the town, but returned Monday thinking the storm was over, only to watch her house collapse as waves still pounded the coast. All they could recover were a refrigerator and some furniture.

Playa Baracoa is a hard-luck place. In August 2004, Hurricane Charley destroyed many of the houses here. Then Hurricane Ivan took out some more a month later. Now this.

Meanwhile, in Mexico's popular resort town of Cancun, where damage is severe and 20,000 tourists are still stranded, a store owner opened his shop to supply hurricane victims with food and water, only to be overrun by looters, including tourists stealing cigars.