October 23, 2005

Stronger Wilma speeds toward Florida

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 awaited battering winds and surging
seas, dazed tourists waded through a knee-deep flood 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 strengthened again to carry 110 mph
(175 kph) winds toward the Florida Keys, where storm-weary
residents largely ignored evacuation orders.

"We're just hoping that the waters don't rise and the
bridges don't fail," said real estate agent Suzanne Washburn.
"If you've got coffee and bread, what else do you need?"

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 (175-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 8 p.m. on Sunday (midnight GMT), Wilma's center was
about 170 miles west-southwest of Key West and moving northeast
at 15 mph (24 kph), the National Hurricane Center in Miami

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

In Naples on Florida's southwest coast, restaurants and
bars were packed on Sunday night and patrons seemed unworried.

Wilma was a strong Category 2 hurricane on the five-stage
Saffir-Simpson scale and forecasters said it could strengthen
to near Category 3 as it approached the Florida coast.

Wilma could push a storm surge of 9 feet to 17 feet (2.7-5
meters) above normal tides into southwest Florida. 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 head across Florida toward the area
between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, the state's most
populous region with about 5 million people. Shelters opened
and residents of mobile homes and low-lying areas were told to

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 gutted homes, hotels and stores all
along the "Maya Riviera," which draws millions of tourists to
its 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, broken electrical towers and other debris.

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

Four people were killed on the island of Cozumel, and three
others on the mainland, making Wilma's overall death toll 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.

Western Cuba was buffeted by 86-mph (138 kph) wind gusts
and spates of torrential rain from Wilma's outer bands.
Havana's 2 million inhabitants hunkered down in the dark,
listening to battery-powered radios after authorities cut power
to prevent electrical accidents.

The hurricane appeared to brush past the island, where
authorities had evacuated more than half a million people, but
forecasters warned of dangerous storm surges in Havana.

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season has seen three of the
fiercest storms on record -- Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and
Wilma. It 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 Anthony Boadle in Havana, Lisa
Jucca, Noel Randewich and Greg Brosnan in Mexico, Michael
Peltier in Tallahassee, Irene Klotz in Melbourne and Jim Loney
and Jane Sutton in Miami)