Wilma’s next target - Florida

| Friday, October 21, 2005

A slow-moving Hurricane Wilma ravaged Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Friday afternoon, likely delaying its time of arrival in the United States.

Although originally expected to reach landfall somewhere in Florida early in the weekend, the storm - which was still moving at approximately 5 mph late Friday - is now anticipated to make U.S. landfall sometime on Monday.

As of Friday afternoon, traffic was starting to backup along Florida's southwest coast because of evacuating residents.

Despite the slowed arrival, a mandatory evacuation of Naples, FL, and the snowbird resort of Marco Island began Friday afternoon. Traffic backups up and down the Florida Peninsula were 10 miles long in some areas, including on the northbound section of Interstate 75 out of Naples and Ft. Myers, ABC News reported.

Evacuations in the Florida Keys were still being conducted on a voluntary basis Friday afternoon.

Anticipation for the storm also brought long lines and gas shortages in pocketed areas of Florida.

Albert Flores, manager of local fuel distributor Floval Oil, told the Miami Herald that demand from gas stations was up by about 30 percent. In Port Charles and Englewood, supplies at a number of stations fell short, leaving pumps dry and evacuating residents without fuel, the Charlotte Sun-Herald reported.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush released a statement warning people not to horde oil, and that the state had a 200-million-gallon supply of fuel that would be adequate for the evacuation.

Officials said the storm's speed, ocean temperatures and how far it moves inland in the Yucatan would all play a role in where the 400-mile-wide hurricane makes landfall in the United States.

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 Florida.

Hurricane watches and warnings continued Friday afternoon throughout the Caribbean and coastal Mexico. As of late Friday afternoon, official watches were not in effect for the continental United States, but the weather service had advised residents in the Florida Keys and Florida peninsula to "closely monitor the progress" of this extremely dangerous storm.

At 4 p.m. CDT, the center of Wilma was located near over the northeastern end of the island of Cozumel. Wilma is moving toward the northwest at about 5 mph, and is expected to continue in this direction during the next 24 hours. On this track, the center of Wilma is expected to move inland over the extreme northeastern Yucatan Peninsula Friday night and remain inland on Saturday.

Maximum sustained winds are near 140 mph with higher gusts. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 85 miles from the center, and tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 200 miles.

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 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 postponed indefinitely 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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