FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Hurricane Katrina slammed into Florida’s densely populated southeastern coast Thursday with sustained winds of 80 mph and lashing rain. Two people were killed by falling trees.
The storm strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane just before it made landfall along the Miami-Dade and Broward county line between Hallandale Beach and North Miami Beach. Weather officials said flooding was the main concern as the storm dropped a foot of rain or more in some spots.
There were no immediate reports of major damage or flooding as the storm passed through the area. An estimated 5.9 million Florida residents were in Katrina’s projected path.
Rain fell in horizontal sheets and blew gusts of up to 92 mph, toppling trees and street signs. Seas were estimated at 15 feet, and blowing sand covered waterfront streets. Florida Power & Light said more than a million customers were without electricity.
The storm proved fatal for two people who ignored warnings from officials to stay inside until the worst was over. A man in his 20s in Fort Lauderdale was crushed by a falling tree as he sat alone in his car, while a pedestrian was killed by a falling tree in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Plantation.
“The message needs to be very clear. It’s not a good night to be out driving around,” National Hurricane Center director May Mayfield. “The back side of the core of the hurricane has yet to come. It’s not over yet.”
The usually bustling streets of Miami Beach, a tourist haven, were largely deserted as the storm pounded the area. The city is hosting celebrities and partygoers in town for the MTV Video Music Awards. MTV called off its pre-awards festivities Thursday and Friday.
“It’s like a ghost town out here,” said Mark Darress, concierge at The Astor Hotel in Miami Beach. “I see the random, not so smart people, riding scooters every now and then.”
Tourists and others hoping to get out of town before the storm were stranded as airlines canceled flights at Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports, which both closed Thursday night.
On the entertainment strip along Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, Mango’s restaurant manager Paul Wagner was closing the business for the night as the weather worsened.
“That eye wall is coming through, but it’s pretty moderate here,” Wagner said. “The only thing I can really see is tree limbs and some palm fronds in the road.”
Before the hurricane struck, Floridians wary of Katrina prepared by putting up shutters, stacking sandbags in doorways and stocking up on supplies.
At a supermarket in Hollywood, Cassandra Butler hefted two five-gallon bottles of water as well as a 24-pack of smaller bottles into her shopping cart Thursday.
“It’s not that I’m worried. I’ve been in south Florida all my life,” Butler said. “But this is a feature of life down here, and you are smart to deal with it.”
At a Home Depot in Miami, Jose Guerrera, 68, loaded 4-by-8 sheets of plywood onto a metal cart. He and his family huddled in their Coral Gables home as Hurricane Andrew screamed by in 1993, and he has been boarding up the house during hurricanes ever since.
Water management officials lowered canal levels to avoid possible flooding, and pumps were activated in several low-lying areas of Miami-Dade.