10-19-05 - Hurricane Wilma swirled into the most intense Atlantic storm ever recorded Wednesday, a Category 5 monster whose powerful winds and heavy rains already have been blamed for killing at least 12 people in the Caribbean as it bore down on Central America.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said a weakened but still formidable Wilma could make landfall in southwestern Florida on Saturday. Officials ordered visitors out of the Florida Keys.
Wilma's force dipped slightly Wednesday afternoon, with its maximum sustained winds dropping to 165 mph from 175 mph earlier in the day, but it was still a Category 5 storm, the Hurricane Center said.
Jamaica, Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras were getting heavy rain from the storm, though it was not likely to make landfall in any of those countries. Many residents prepared for the worst only weeks after rains left more than 1,500 people dead or missing in Central America and Mexico.
With rough seas already pounding coastal areas, flood-prone Honduras warned that Wilma posed "an imminent threat to life and property" and closed two seaports on its Caribbean coast. Neighboring Nicaragua and the Cayman Islands also were on alert.
Computer models showed Wilma possibly making a sharp turn as it hits upper-level winds blowing east, moving through the narrow channel between Cuba and Mexico, where it threatened Cancun, before heading toward Florida.
Forecasters urged the Florida Keys and the peninsula to closely monitor the storm's progress.
"It does look like it poses a significant threat to Florida by the weekend. Of course, these are four- and five-day forecasts, so things can change," meteorologist Dan Brown said.
At 2 p.m. EDT, the hurricane was centered about 300 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, according to the Hurricane Center. It was moving west-northwest at near 7 mph.
It was expected to dump up to 25 inches of rain in mountainous areas of Cuba and up to 15 inches in the Caymans and Jamaica over the next two days. A foot of rain was possible from Honduras through the Yucatan peninsula, the weather service said.
In Mexico, the MTV Latin America Video Music Awards ceremony, originally scheduled for Thursday at a seaside park south of Cancun, was postponed until an undetermined date.
A hurricane watch was in effect for the east coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, parts of Cuba and the Cayman Islands.
Wilma's confirmed pressure readings Wednesday morning dropped to 882 millibars _ the lowest minimum pressure ever measured in a hurricane in the Atlantic basin, according to the hurricane center. Lower pressure translates into higher wind speed.
Forecasters said Wilma was stronger than the devastating Labor Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935, the strongest Atlantic hurricane to make landfall on record.
But Wilma was not expected to keep its record strength for long, as disruptive atmospheric winds in the Gulf of Mexico should weaken it before landfall, Hurricane Center meteorologist Hugh Cobb said. Gulf water is about 1 to 2 degrees cooler than that in the Caribbean, which should inhibit its strength more, he added.
The strongest storm on record, based on the lowest pressure reading, had been Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which registered an 888 millibar reading.
The head of Haiti's civil protection agency, said Maria Alta Jean-Baptiste said the storm's outer bands caused flooding and landslides that killed at least 11 people since Monday and forced at least 2,000 families from their homes.
"The situation is not catastrophic, but if the rains pick up, it could become very difficult for some people," Jean-Baptiste said.
Heavy rains were swelling rivers along Honduras' eastern Atlantic coast Wednesday, but emergency officials had not yet ordered evacuations.
Honduras and its neighbors already are recovering from flooding and mudslides earlier this month in the aftermath of Hurricane Stan.
Cuban authorities suspended classes in the threatened western province of Pinar del Rio and prepared to evacuate tourists from campgrounds and low-lying areas, according the Communist Party newspaper. Heavy rains in the island's eastern province of Granma forced the evacuations of more than 1,000 people, though some 5,500 residents of Guantanamo, further east, were allowed to return to their homes.
Jamaica, where heavy rains have fallen since Sunday, closed almost all schools and 380 people remained in shelters. But businesses remained open and people went to work and shopped as usual. One man died Sunday in a rain-swollen river.
Wilma already had been blamed for one death in Jamaica as a tropical depression Sunday.
Some Florida residents began buying water, canned food and other emergency supplies. The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since August 2004, causing more than $20 billion in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.
"People have learned their lesson and know better how to prepare. We're not waiting until the last minute anymore," said Andrea Yerger, 48, of Port Charlotte, Fla.
Her house had to be gutted after being damaged by Hurricane Charley last year.
In the Cayman Islands, authorities urged businesses to close early Tuesday to give employees time to prepare for the storm. Schools were ordered to close on Wednesday.
Forecasters said Wilma should avoid the central U.S. Gulf coast devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita earlier this year which killed more than 1,200 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Wilma is the record-tying 12th hurricane of the season, the same number reached in 1969. That is the most for one season since record-keeping began in 1851.