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Wilma Briefly Becomes Giant Off Yucatan

The hurricane evolves into the season's most powerful, then ebbs. Tourists are ordered out of the Keys; 12 people die in the Caribbean.

October 20, 2005|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Hurricane Wilma rumbled slowly toward the Yucatan peninsula on Wednesday, feeding on warm Caribbean air to become the most powerful hurricane of a record-setting year and leading authorities to order evacuations in an area stretching from Central America's Atlantic coast to the Florida Keys.

With sustained winds reaching 175 mph, Wilma became a Category 5 storm Wednesday morning. Later, it weakened somewhat but remained a dangerous Category 4 storm with 155-mph winds.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami, which uses barometric pressure to measure a storm's intensity, said that pressure at the center of Wilma at one point dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest ever measured in an Atlantic hurricane.

Lower pressure translates into higher wind speed.

Forecasters in the U.S. and Mexico expected Wilma to graze the northeastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula by Friday before heading northeastward across the Gulf of Mexico toward Florida.

"We want to make sure everyone in the Florida Keys understands the seriousness of the situation," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center. "We will likely have a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, and we'll have to deal with it whether we like it or not."

Mayfield said Wilma would be pulled north by a trough of low pressure over the gulf and that it could still remain dangerous as a Category 4 storm.

In Florida, officials ordered tourists out of the Florida Keys by noon Wednesday, with evacuation of 80,000 residents to begin today, Reuters reported.

Officials in Haiti said 11 people had been killed by flooding, and one death was reported in Jamaica, as both Caribbean nations were hit by heavy rains on Wilma's fringes.

Wilma is the 21st tropical storm of this season, tying the record set in 1933. The World Meteorological Organization has reached the end of the alphabet -- it doesn't use the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z -- for the first time since tropical storms began to be named in 1953.

"As of this moment we don't expect a direct hit on the [Mexican] coast," said Jaime Albarran, spokesman for Mexico's National Weather Service. "But we do expect a very strong impact in the extreme north" of the Yucatan peninsula.

Mexican authorities ordered the evacuation Wednesday of 60,000 tourists from the area. Tourists packed the airport at Cancun, in the state of Quintana Roo.

With most flights full, local authorities provided buses.

In the nearby resort of Playa del Carmen, MTV postponed its Latin American Music Video Awards, as Colombian pop singer Shakira and others evacuated ahead of the storm.

But in the fishing town of San Felipe, about 100 miles northeast of Merida, capital of the state of Yucatan, no one had yet evacuated.

San Felipe Mayor Raul Erosa Diaz said in a telephone interview that local residents were taking their boats out of the water and tying down the roofs of their homes.

"If the order to evacuate were to come now, everyone would be ready," Erosa said as a light rain fell in the town.

He said he expected some flooding: In 2002, Hurricane Isidore sent a fleet of boats floating into San Felipe. But in July, Hurricane Emily left only limited damage when it rolled through the peninsula.

If Wilma were to make landfall on the Yucatan, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said, the storm surge could reach 7 to 10 feet above normal tide levels.

In Honduras, where thousands were killed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, tourists also were evacuated from coastal and island resorts. A "red alert" warning was issued to about 760,000 residents.

"For now, the situation is manageable," Luis Gomez, director of Honduras' emergency preparedness committee, said by telephone. "We have all the machinery ready in case of mudslides."

Officials ordered schools closed in the Cayman Islands and parts of western Cuba.

This month, mudslides caused by Hurricane Stan buried villages in Guatemala and left more than 1,000 people dead or missing throughout Central America.

On Wednesday, power was out in some towns along Honduras' Atlantic coast, and many rivers were close to cresting, Honduran media reported. But it appeared that the country had been spared a direct hit.

"So far we've missed the worst, thank God," Carlos Gonzalez, a Honduran emergency services official, told local radio. "We feel bad what could happen to Cuba and to Mexico."

The previous record low pressure for a storm in the Atlantic basin was set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, at 888 millibars. Gilbert also struck the Yucatan, devastating the fishing and tourist industries, but most of the deaths it caused were the result of flooding in northern Mexico.

By Wednesday afternoon, a second U.S. Air Force plane found that Wilma's atmospheric pressure at its center had risen to 900 millibars.

Mayfield, of the National Hurricane Center, said Wilma might not reach the Florida Keys until Saturday.


Carlos Martinez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau and special correspondent Alexander Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.

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