Florida preps for unknown strength of Hurricane Wilma

| Thursday, October 20, 2005

Wilma weakened slightly to a Category 4 Hurricane Thursday, Oct. 20, but the storm could once again strengthen to a powerful Category 5 before its predicted encounter with the Florida peninsula Sunday afternoon.

Hurricane watches and warnings continued to sprout up Thursday afternoon throughout the Caribbean and coastal Mexico. Official watches are not yet in place for the continental United States, but the weather service has advised residents in the Florida Keys and Florida peninsula to "closely monitor the progress" of this extremely dangerous storm.

At 1 p.m. CDT Thursday, the center of Wilma was located about 160 miles south-southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, and had slowed to a movement of about 5 mph. A switch to the west-northwest or northwest was expected to occur by 1 p.m. Friday.

Maximum sustained winds are near 145 mph, with higher gusts. Some re-strengthening is expected within the next 24 hours.

On Wednesday, Wilma broke records, including the lowest millibar pressure - 882 - ever recorded, and a 105 mph increase in wind speeds in just 24 hours, the fastest wind speed increase in recorded Atlantic hurricane history.

The storm's winds propelled it into Category 5 hurricane status Wednesday, before dropping to a Category 4 on Thursday. However, officials with the National Weather Service's Hurricane Center said the storm could grow, and cautioned against taking the storm lightly.

"Believe me, this is still a very, very powerful hurricane," Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told CNN. "Don't minimize this just because it's no longer a Category 5."

The National Weather Service is predicting landfall in Florida anywhere between Tampa and the Florida Keys. A mandatory evacuation for the Florida Keys was issued Wednesday, but was withdrawn due to the storm's slowed movement. Further evacuations are 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," Mayfield 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."

Hurricane Wilma is the 21st named Atlantic tropical storm to form this year, a tie for the most named tropical storms in a single season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. This is the 12th tropical storm to grow into a hurricane this season, which ties the previous record set in 1969. This is the first year on record that three Category 5 hurricanes have developed.

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