October 18, 2005

Hurricane Wilma heads for Gulf of Mexico

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma strengthened in the
Caribbean on Tuesday and headed toward the Gulf of Mexico,
where it seemed likely to spare battered U.S. oil and gas
fields but threatened storm-weary Florida.

The rapidly intensifying storm also menaced Honduras and
Nicaragua with up to 10 inches of rain, compounding the woes of
Central America. More than 1,000 people in Guatemala and El
Salvador were killed by landslides and floods triggered by
Hurricane Stan this month.

Wilma was expected to strengthen into a major hurricane
with winds of more than 110 mph by Thursday and its likely
long-range forecast track, which has a wide margin of error,
had it crossing southern Florida on Saturday.

The storm was not expected to threaten New Orleans or
southern Mississippi, where Hurricane Katrina killed more than
1,200 people and caused insured damage estimated at more than
$30 billion in late August. Katrina was followed in September
by Hurricane Rita.

Wilma was the 21st tropical cyclone of the Atlantic season,
tying the record for most storms set in 1933. It was the 12th
hurricane and also tied the record for most hurricanes in a
season, set in 1969. The season still has six weeks to run.

Oil markets have been watching Wilma's progress nervously,
afraid it could strike Gulf of Mexico oil and gas facilities
that are still reeling from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But
the threat to energy interests appeared to have eased as
forecasters predicted the storm will turn toward Florida.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Wilma had maximum sustained winds
near 80 mph, up from 50 mph a day earlier. It was about 180
miles south of Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands,
a British colony south of Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane
Center said.

"It is likely that Wilma will be a major hurricane when it
enters the southeastern Gulf of Mexico," the hurricane center

Wilma was moving west-northwest at 8 mph and was expected
to stay on that general track for the next day, forecasters


The hurricane center's long-range track had Wilma near
western Cuba on Friday and curving east toward Florida's
southern Gulf coast during the weekend. The state was hit by
four hurricanes last year and was struck by hurricanes Dennis,
Katrina and Rita this year.

Storm alerts were in effect for the Cayman Islands and
parts of coastal Honduras. Forecasters warned residents of
western Cuba, the Yucatan Peninsula, the Florida Keys and the
Florida peninsula to watch Wilma's progress closely.

Wilma was expected to dump heavy rain on the Caymans,
Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua, with isolated
amounts of up to 12 inches possible. Mountainous Jamaica and
deforested Haiti are both vulnerable to deadly mudslides.

The formation of Wilma on Monday meant the hurricane center
has reached the end of its seasonal list of male and female
names. If more tropical storms form this season, forecasters
will begin using the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.