October 18, 2005

Strengthening Hurricane Wilma threatens Florida

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma drenched the Caribbean
coast of Honduras on Tuesday and strengthened rapidly as the
season's record-tying 21st storm headed toward the Gulf of
Mexico on a path for storm-weary Florida.

Wilma was expected to strengthen into a powerful Category 4
storm on the five-step scale of hurricane intensity, with winds
over 130 mph (209 kph) by the time it crosses into the Gulf of
Mexico on Friday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center's long-range forecast
track, which has a wide margin of error, had it crossing
southern Florida on Saturday. The state was hit by four
hurricanes last year and has been struck by Hurricanes Dennis,
Katrina and Rita this year.

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

Wilma threatened Honduras and Nicaragua with flooding 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 not expected to threaten New Orleans or
Mississippi, where Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,200
people and caused more than $30 billion of insured damage in
August. Katrina was followed in September by Hurricane Rita.

Wilma was also expected to miss the Gulf of Mexico oil and
gas facilities that are still reeling from Katrina and Rita.

But frozen orange juice futures closed at a six-year high
on Tuesday amid fears Wilma could ravage Florida groves that
had just begun to rebound from the hurricanes that destroyed 40
percent of last year's crop.

"We have not really begun harvesting, so much of the crop
is still on the trees, which obviously is a concern for
growers," said Casey Pace, spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus
Mutual growers' association.


At 5 p.m. (2100 GMT)on Tuesday, Wilma had top sustained
winds near 80 mph (130 kph), up from 50 mph (80 kph) 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.

Wilma was moving west-northwest at 8 mph (13 kph) and was
expected to turn northwest on Wednesday. The hurricane center
predicted Wilma would skirt western Cuba on Friday and curve
east toward Florida's southern Gulf coast.

Storm alerts were in effect for the Cayman Islands, parts
of Cuba, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and coastal Honduras.

Wilma was expected to deluge the Caymans, Jamaica, Haiti,
Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua, with isolated rainfall amounts of
up to 15 inches possible. Mountainous Jamaica and deforested
Haiti are vulnerable to deadly mudslides.

Emergency crews in Honduras prepared to evacuate 10,000
people, including tourists drawn to the Bay Islands of Roatan,
Utila and Guanaja to scuba dive the pristine coral reefs.

"We are sending food to areas that could become cut off and
we are moving heavy machinery to repair roads in the event of
flooding or landslides," said Jose Ramon Salinas, operations
chief of the Honduran government's emergency relief agency.

Cuba's tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Rio braced for
heavy rain and flooding. More than 5,000 people were evacuated
in eastern Cuba, where two days of rainfall caused floods and
mudslides in the provinces of Guantanamo, Santiago and Granma.

The Florida Keys, a chain of islands connected to mainland
Florida by a single road, planned to order visitors to leave on
Thursday and to evacuate 80,000 residents on Friday.

"This is our fourth storm but this one is really
aggressive. This one we are taking seriously. The damage is
going to be substantial," Irene Toner, director of emergency
management for the county that encompasses the islands, told
local radio.

(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa,
Anthony Boadle in Havana, Rene Pastor in New York and Laura
Myers in Key West)