October 20, 2005

Hurricane Wilma targets Yucatan, Florida

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters)- Hurricane Wilma weakened slightly
from its record strength in the Caribbean sea on Thursday, but
threatened to pound tourist resorts on Mexico's Yucatan
Peninsula with a 10-foot tidal surge and 145 mph winds.

From the Yucatan to Honduras, Cuba and the fragile Florida
Keys island chain, tourists sought to flee and residents
boarded up homes and stores as authorities urged people in the
path of the deadly hurricane to evacuate. Wilma killed 10
people in Haiti early in the week.

Wilma was expected to miss oil and gas facilities in the
Gulf of Mexico, which are still reeling after hurricanes
Katrina and Rita in August and September, but Florida's orange
groves were at risk.

Wilma briefly was the strongest Atlantic storm on record in
terms of barometric pressure on Wednesday after growing with
unprecedented speed into a Category 5 hurricane, the top rank
on the Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity.

Such storms can cause catastrophic damage to built-up
areas. Densely populated southern Florida was in Wilma's
projected path by the end of the weekend.

Wilma's top winds had weakened to 145 mph as of 8 a.m. EDT
Thursday. The storm was 175 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico,
and traveling west-northwest at 7 mph.

Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami
said it could strengthen again.

The storm's core was projected to pass over the northern
Yucatan near Cozumel early on Friday, sending a 10-foot surge
of water over the coast, forecasters said.

Mexican authorities began evacuating 10,000 people from the
coastal state of Quintana Roo. Many flights out of the resort
city Cancun were full.

"We'll get on a bus or take a car, we're very determined,"
said German vacationer Ulrike Gruber, 27.

Fueled by warm Caribbean waters, the season's record-tying
21st storm logged top winds of 175 mph on Wednesday and a
record-low barometric pressure of 882 millibars.

That meant Wilma was briefly stronger than Katrina, which
devastated New Orleans and killed 1,200 people, and Rita, which
hit the Texas-Louisiana coast.

Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said Wilma was
likely to slice across southern Florida as a formidable
hurricane over the weekend.


Florida was hit by four hurricanes last year and has been
struck by Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Rita this year. State
emergency officials warned everyone south of the Tampa-Orlando
corridor to prepare for Wilma.

Stung by criticism over a slow federal response to Katrina,
the administration of President George W. Bush said it was
working with Florida officials to prepare for Wilma. "This is a
very frightening storm that is on our doorstep," said Monroe
County Mayor Dixie Spehar in the Florida Keys.

Authorities in the Keys, connected to mainland Florida by a
single road, ordered tourists out on Wednesday. It told the
islands' 80,000 residents to evacuate on Friday.

Storm warnings were also in force for Honduras. More than
1,000 people died in Central America this month after Hurricane
Stan triggered mudslides.

Wilma was expected to dump up to 25 inches of rain on
mountainous parts of Cuba, up to 15 inches in the Yucatan and
up to 8 inches in Honduras and the Cayman Islands.

Wilma was the year's 12th hurricane and tied the record for
most hurricanes in a season set in 1969.

The season has six weeks left and has already spawned three
of the most intense hurricanes on record. Hurricane experts say
the Atlantic has entered a period of heightened storm activity
that could last another 20 years.

Cuba suspended school in the western province of Pinar del
Rio and began evacuating thousands of coastal residents.
Workers hastened to protect tobacco seedlings for the next
harvest of leaves for Cuba's famed cigars.

(Additional reporting by Michael Christie in Miami, Todd
Eastham in Washington)