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HURRICANE WILMA Now Most Intense Atlantic Storm Ever


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Wilma Now Most Intense Atlantic Storm Ever





SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) - Hurricane Wilma brought heavy rains to Central America and Mexico on Wednesday as it swirled into the most intense Atlantic storm ever recorded, a Category 5 monster packing 175 mph winds that forecasters warned was ``extremely dangerous.''


Wilma spent most of its force at sea on the western Caribbean on Wednesday. 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 bearing down on Florida over the weekend.


``All interests in the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula should closely monitor the progress of extremely dangerous Hurricane Wilma,'' the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.


At 8 a.m., the hurricane was centered about 340 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, with maximum sustained wind was 175 mph, forecasters said.




It was expected to dump up to 25 inches of rain in mountainous areas of Cuba through Friday, and up to 15 inches in the Caymans and Jamaica through Thursday. A foot of rain was possible from Honduras through the Yucatan peninsula, the weather service said.


On Wednesday, Wilma's heavy rains soaked Central America and Mexico - parts of which were still recovering from the brunt of Hurricane Stan - and satellite photos showed the storm's arms covering much of Cuba.


In Mexico, the MTV Latin America Video Music Awards ceremony, originally scheduled for Thursday at a seaside park south of Cancun, was postponed.


A hurricane watch was in effect for the east coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, parts of Cuba and the Cayman Islands, and the National Hurricane Center warned of a ``significant threat'' to Florida.


Forecasters predicted Wilma would make landfall in southwestern Florida and could bring devastating winds to the east coast. Officials ordered visitors out of the Florida Keys.


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. 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.


U.S. Air Force reconnaissance planes measured Wilma's top sustained wind at 175 mph, making it a Category 5 storm, the Hurricane Center said.


``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.


Jamaica, Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras were getting heavy rain from Wilma, though it was unlikely to make landfall in any of those countries. With heavy rain, high winds, and 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.


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. At least 796 people were killed, most of them in Guatemala, with many more still missing.


Cuba issued a hurricane watch for the western end of the island from Matanzas to Pinar del Rio, as well as the Isle of Youth. Mexico issued a hurricane watch for nearly all of its Caribbean coast from Punta Gruesa to Cabo Catoche, an area that includes the resort of Cancun.


Wilma already had been blamed for one death in Jamaica as a tropical depression Sunday. It has flooded several low-lying communities and triggered mudslides that blocked roads and damaged several homes, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica's emergency management office. She said that some 250 people were in shelters throughout the island.


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.


Associated Press reporters Mitch Stacy in Punta Gorda, Florida, and Jay Ehrhart in George Town, Cayman Islands, contributed to this report.


On the Net:


National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov



10/19/05 10:31



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