October 23, 2005

Stronger Wilma menaces Florida after bashing Mexico

By Laura Myers

KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma strengthened
as it raced toward Florida on Sunday after devastating Mexico's
Caribbean resorts with floods and wild winds that smashed
thousands of homes and killed seven people.

While Florida residents hunkered down for battering winds
and a surge of sea water, dazed tourists waded through
knee-deep water in Mexico's beach resort Cancun to seek food
and water after three nights in shelters without electricity.

At one point the most intense hurricane recorded in the
Atlantic basin, Wilma weakened as it hammered Mexico's Yucatan
Peninsula for days, but then strengthened again to carry 105
mph (165 kph) winds toward the Florida Keys, where storm-weary
residents largely ignored evacuation orders.

"We were all packed and ready to go. But personally, now I
feel we will be safe and better off here," said Lori Thompson
of Key West, who had considered driving to Orlando.

Emergency managers estimated no more than 7 percent of the
Keys' 80,000 residents evacuated, despite fears they could be
stranded if Wilma washed out parts of the Overseas Highway, the
only road connecting the 110-mile (176-km) island chain to
mainland Florida. The last city evacuation bus left Key West on
Sunday morning with only the driver and one passenger.

"All I can tell people in the Keys who are trying to ride
this one out is one of these days your luck is going to run
out," said Craig Fugate, Florida's director of emergency


At 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), Wilma's center was about 210 miles

west-southwest of Key West and moving northeast at 14 mph
(22 kph), the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

It was expected to hit southwest Florida by daybreak on
Monday, and then "take off like a rocket headed out over the
Atlantic," hurricane center Director Max Mayfield said.

Wilma was a Category 2 hurricane on the five-stage
Saffir-Simpson scale. Forecasters said there was a chance it
could become more powerful as it moved over warm Gulf waters.

Wilma could push a storm surge of 9 feet to 17 feet (2.7-5
meters) above normal tides onto the southwest Florida coast.
That would exceed the surge of last year's Hurricane Charley,
then the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history with more
than $15 billion in damage.

Wilma was expected to cross Florida to its most populous
area between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, which is
home to about 5 million people. Shelters opened and residents
of mobile homes and low-lying areas were told to leave.

U.S. space agency NASA closed its Kennedy Space Center on
the Atlantic coast of central Florida and told its 13,000
workers to stay home on Monday.


Wilma did heavy damage in Mexico, where days of howling
winds and torrential rain ruined homes, hotels and stores all
along the "Maya Riviera," which draws millions of tourists to
its white-sand beaches, coral-filled seas and Mayan ruins.

"It looks like a war zone out here," said British tourist
Thomas Hall as he glanced down an avenue filled with water,
fallen trees and other debris.

Troops distributed food, but luxury beachfront hotels on a
long spit of sand have been cut off by water since Friday.

Four people were killed on Cozumel, an island known for
scuba diving, and another three on the mainland, bringing
Wilma's overall death toll to at least 17 after mudslides
killed 10 people in Haiti last week.

In the Playa del Carmen resort, trees and electrical poles
lay in the streets, and many buildings were damaged.

"Everything is destroyed. This was a hurricane that made
history," said construction worker Benigno Palma, who rode out
the storm in a hurricane shelter.

Wilma's heavy rains doused Cuba's tobacco-growing Pinar del
Rio province and Havana as it roared past on Sunday. A
half-million people were evacuated. Civil defense officials
said tornadoes spawned by Wilma injured six people.

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season has seen three of the
fiercest storms on record -- Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma
-- and became the most active season since records began 150
years ago when Tropical Storm Alpha formed on Saturday.

Experts say the Atlantic has entered a period of heightened
storm activity that could last 20 years.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Jucca, Noel Randewich and
Greg Brosnan in Mexico, Michael Peltier in Tallahassee, Irene
Klotz in Melbourne and Jim Loney in Miami)