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Wilma, the Last Name in Storms, Is Born

The tempest becomes the 21st for the season. Any beyond that would be labeled with a letter of the Greek alphabet.

October 18, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Forecasters reached the last name on their list when Tropical Storm Wilma, a potential hurricane that could threaten the U.S. Gulf Coast, formed in the Caribbean on Monday.

"This is the first time we've ever gotten 21 storms" in one season, said Mark McInerney, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center here.

Actually, there were 21 tropical storms in 1933, McInerney said, but they weren't given names back then. And because the current naming system skips the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z, any more storms that materialize during the busy 2005 Atlantic season that ends Nov. 30 will have to be designated with letters from the Greek alphabet, starting with alpha.

Some computer models indicate that Wilma -- situated 250 miles southeast of Grand Cayman Island on Monday night -- could pass through the Gulf of Mexico before curving toward the western coast of Florida by the weekend.

It is difficult to predict a storm's path days in advance. Still, experts said Wilma was more proof that the Atlantic was in the throes of an active storm-generating phase that could last 20 more years.

"We really don't know what causes it," said Cary J. Mock, a paleoclimatologist at the University of South Carolina. "It does relate to a broad conveyor belt of oceanic circulation that goes all around the world, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean."

Phil Klotzbach, a research associate in the department of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, said the water and wind conditions were favorable for spawning tropical storms.

"Basically this year, the water temperatures in the Atlantic have been very warm," Klotzbach said. "We're talking about 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. It's not a huge difference, but it's enough."

As Wilma -- which had sustained winds of nearly 65 mph -- gathered strength, the Cayman Islands issued a tropical storm warning and hurricane watch; Honduras also was under a tropical storm warning.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm could drop 4 to 6 inches of rain over the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Wilma was expected to turn toward the northwest today, with its winds increasing to at least 74 mph, or hurricane-force intensity, McInerney said. That would make Wilma the 12th hurricane of the year, tying a record set in 1969.

After Wilma passes or nicks Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, McInerney said, the forecast models were projecting a variety of courses. "It could go anywhere," he said.

National Hurricane Center forecasters said no scenarios as of Monday were calling for Wilma to strike Louisiana or Mississippi, states battered by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But "everybody needs to watch, from Mexico to Florida," Klotzbach said.

Records on tropical storms have been kept since 1851. The practice of naming them began with an all-female list in 1953. Masculine names were included on the list for the first time in 1979.

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