Florida peninsula prepares for Wilma's onslaught

| 10/19/2005

Although it's still a few days from coming ashore in the United States , Hurricane Wilma became the strongest, most intense Atlantic hurricane in recorded history Wednesday, Oct. 19.

Wilma, a powerful Category 5 hurricane with the lowest millibar pressure - 882 - on record, ravaged coastlines in Central America as it moved toward Mexico. The storm is expected to shift, weaken and curve eastward later this week. It could hit the Southern Florida coastline sometime early this weekend.

According to the National Weather Service's Hurricane Center, hurricane watches and warnings remain in effect throughout the Caribbean and along the Mexican coast. Official watches are not yet in place for the continental U.S., but the weather service has advised residents in the Florida Keys and Florida Peninsula to "closely monitor the progress" of this extremely dangerous storm.

Winds of up to 175 mph were reported early Wednesday morning, having risen 105 mph in just 24 hours - the fastest wind speed increase in recorded Atlantic hurricane history.

The Florida Keys have already been evacuated, with further evacuations expected further up the peninsula as the storm moves closer to the mainland. Officials have cautioned area residents of the danger of staying in Wilma's path.

"We had well over a thousand lives lost in Katrina," Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Florida, told CNN. "If Wilma comes into the Florida coast as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, that potential for large loss of life is with us here with this hurricane."

Because of the storm's relative southern position, experts do not expect it to reach oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the storm's threat has caused markets to fluctuate and analysts to keep a wary eye on its path.

"Wilma is supposed to hit Florida and not the Gulf of Mexico, but it could easily change direction when it hits land," financial analyst Bruce Evers told Forbes. "It would be absolutely disastrous if Wilma went through the oil platforms."