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Yucatan Fears Direct Hit by Wilma

The hurricane is set to strike the Mexican peninsula today. In Florida, officials expect an 'agonizing weekend.'

October 21, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — As Hurricane Wilma slowly bore down on the Yucatan with the power to wreak havoc on one of Mexico's top tourist destinations, far to the east in Florida, officials and residents Thursday began getting ready for the storm's potentially destructive arrival in their state.

"Right now, we're telling our folks to be prepared," said Sherry Montgomery, a government spokeswoman in Charlotte County, home to 150,000 year-round residents on Florida's southwestern coast.

As Wilma, with sustained winds of near 150 mph, trudged toward an expected landfall on the Yucatan Peninsula late this morning, though, it remained a meteorological enigma, its future intensity and course -- and the risk it posed to Florida -- difficult to predict.

Much, said weather experts, was riding on what happened over the next 48 hours.

"A lot depends on how long Wilma spends over the Yucatan today, tomorrow and Saturday morning," Ben Nelson, Florida's state meteorologist, said Thursday. "Whenever you have a storm sitting over land, it's going to decrease in intensity."

Nelson said he and many other Floridians would spend "an agonizing weekend" monitoring Wilma. As of Thursday, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center were predicting Wilma might reach Florida's western shoreline late Sunday or early Monday anywhere from the northern Gulf Coast to the Florida Keys.

"There are all kinds of possibilities -- not many of them good," said Greg Artman, an emergency operations official in the Keys.

In Mexico, officials feared that if Wilma continued on its northwesterly tack, it could sweep along the east coast of the Yucatan.

A direct hit there could be a "tremendous disaster," said Jaime Albaran, a meteorologist and spokesman for Mexico's national weather service. "This is a very, very powerful storm."

As Wilma approached at a slowed forward motion of 6 mph Thursday, Cancun Mayor Francisco Alor announced the evacuation of the city's hotel district. According to Mexican media, some 30,000 tourists had already left.

Felix Gonzalez Canto, governor of Quintana Roo province, which includes Cancun, told reporters that police and government workers were going door to door to make sure people with tin roofs and wooden walls had evacuated. Such weakly built structures are a local fixture.

"We can't ask the hurricane to stop following its course. You can't hold a hurricane to a word of honor. But we can avoid the most disastrous consequences by taking preventative measures," Gonzalez Canto said.

For Florida, Nelson said, the worst-case scenario would be the hurricane remaining over water as it crossed the Yucatan Channel, which links the Caribbean Sea with the Gulf of Mexico. "That would allow it to enter the Gulf as a Category 4 hurricane," he said.

And the ideal?

"We're not wishing any harm on the tourist areas of the Yucatan," Nelson said. "But the best scenario for Florida is that the storm stall over the Yucatan for a day or two."

Authorities in Florida were especially concerned about the potential for a large-scale storm surge of the kind stirred up by Hurricane Katrina, which leveled much of the Gulf Coast. If Wilma is still a Category 4 hurricane when it reaches the gulf, it could raise ocean levels by 10 to 15 feet, Nelson said.

The Florida Keys and southwestern Florida coast, both low-lying areas, could be swamped, he said.

National Hurricane Center forecasters said the hurricane should veer Saturday toward the northeast and pick up speed as a low-pressure trough forming over the central United States starts to influence its track. It could reach Florida as anywhere from a Category 1 to Category 3 hurricane, with a tremendous difference in its capacity to inflict damage, they said.

"In terms of preparations, I'd prepare for the worse-case scenario," said Lt. Dave Roberts, a Navy forecaster at the center, in Miami.

That's what employees were doing Thursday at the Tropical Reef, a seafood restaurant in the southwestern Florida coastal city of Naples. Glassware, plates, spices and other kitchen items were being shifted to higher shelves to minimize the risk of storm-surge damage, server Debbie Philmon said.

From a business point of view, she said, Wilma couldn't be threatening at a worse time: the onset of tourist season.

"People are starting to come down from the North, and it's putting a damper on reservations," Philmon said. "We're beginning the season after a long summer, and it's hard to get back on our feet."

In the Florida Keys, Ricky Stanczyk, assistant manager at Bud N Mary's Fishing Marina in Islamorada, said his employees and others moved a 65-foot fishing boat to a sheltered mooring. But generally, Stanczyk said, they were waiting on more precise weather forecasts.

At first, authorities in the Keys ordered all 70,000 permanent residents of the island chain to leave, but they postponed the evacuation as Wilma's approach slowed.

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