Hurricane Wilma lashing the Yucatan
Category 4 storm also threatens Cuba, Florida
Friday, October 21, 2005; Posted: 6:00 a.m. EDT (10:00 GMT)
The center of Hurricane Wilma is just off the Yucatan in this satellite image taken Friday at 4:15 a.m. ET.
MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Deadly Hurricane Wilma was pounding Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula early Friday, with the popular tourist cities of Cozumel and Cancun directly in the storm's path.
The Category 4 hurricane's outer bands began lashing the tourist hotspots late Thursday, and the winds will get stronger as the center of the storm moves closer.
As of 5 a.m. ET, the storm's top winds were 150 mph, with higher gusts.
By the time the outer wall of its eye reaches the Yucatan shoreline, the hurricane could strengthen into a Category 5, with sustained winds greater than 155 mph, forecasters said. (Watch the latest on Wilma -- 1:51)
From the Yucatan, Wilma was expected to travel to Cuba, then to either the Florida Keys or southwest Florida -- maybe near Marco Island or as far north as Sarasota, said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami
Mayfield predicted the "very dangerous" storm would reach Florida late Sunday or early Monday. (Watch preparations in Florida -- 1:37)
"On the forecast track, the core of Wilma will be very near Cozumel and the northeastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula by midday today," the hurricane center said early Friday. "However, Wilma has a large circulation and hurricane conditions will be felt well before the arrival of the center."
Early Friday, data from Cuba indicated that 20-foot waves were pounding portions of the southern coast of Cuba's Isle of Youth, the center said.
As of late Thursday, forecasters reported that a buoy in the eastern Gulf of Mexico was indicating large swells generated by Wilma. "These swells will likely affect portions of the northern Gulf Coast on Friday," the center said.
Stranded in Mexico
New Jersey resident Michael Attardi and his father-in-law were among dozens of Americans stranded Thursday on the island of Cozumel after airlines canceled flights, Attardi said. They went there to scuba dive. He said when they learned Tuesday about the impending storm, they arranged to leave Mexico at noon Thursday. Ferries also had stopped running, he said.
Attardi said 54 other U.S. citizens, including three small children, planned to seek haven in hotel room bathrooms when Wilma hits, in case windows shatter.
The Americans bought food and water before a 3 p.m. curfew, he said.
Cuban authorities were evacuating 500,000 residents from its westernmost provinces in anticipation of heavy rain and the possibility of mudslides. (See video on Cuba's preparedness -- 2:09)
By Thursday afternoon, more than 222,000 residents had left their homes, many of which are in dire condition after Hurricanes Dennis and Rita hit Cuba this year, officials said.
It is unlikely that Wilma will turn farther eastward and miss Florida, Mayfield said. But like all storms, this one is somewhat unpredictable, Mayfield added.
"That's a little bit like the stock market. Past performance is no guarantee of future results," he said.
Despite some inconsistencies in predictions, "all of the data suggests that eventually it's going to turn up towards the northeast and come over the south Florida Keys."
"Even a Category 2 or a Category 1 hurricane hitting the Florida Keys or the southwest coast of Florida can have big consequences there," Mayfield said.
Florida speeds preparations
Earlier Thursday, storm-weary Florida residents were warned to prepare for Wilma, the seventh hurricane to hit the state in 14 months. (Full story)
"It's too early to specify how strong Wilma will be once it reaches our coast, but Floridians south of the I-4 (Interstate 4) corridor and in the Keys should prepare for the possibility of a major hurricane making landfall late in the weekend," Gov. Jeb Bush said.
The Florida governor declared a state of emergency Wednesday night, hours after announcing that his state had begun evacuating tourists from the Keys and positioning relief supplies and equipment across the state.
Scheduled mandatory evacuations for residents of the Florida Keys have been postponed, because Hurricane Wilma's projected U.S. landfall has been delayed, the Monroe County Office of Emergency Management said Thursday night.
"While a voluntary evacuation continues for all Florida Keys residents, county officials will collaborate with forecasters Friday to determine if mandatory evacuations are appropriate for Saturday," a statement on the county's Web site said.
Visitor and non-resident evacuations began on Wednesday. Those evacuees have been directed to a shelter at Florida International University in Miami, which was opened Thursday. Those not staying there were asked to seek shelter north of Orlando.
To speed the evacuation, authorities locked down all drawbridges and suspended the tolls on the Card Sound Bridge, which connects mainland Florida with Key Largo. Schools and county offices in the Keys will be closed Friday for a second day.
FEMA chief: 'We are ready'
David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, detailed how the agency -- blamed for acting too slowly in August after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast -- is preparing for Wilma.
"By tomorrow afternoon, we will have delivered 150 truckloads of ice, 150 truckloads of water, 30 truckloads of MREs (meals ready to eat) and also the Red Cross is delivering heater meals there to the state of Florida to make sure we are ready for any type of catastrophe," he said. The latter reference is to meals that warm when their packaging is opened.
Paulison took over for Michael Brown, who resigned last month amid accusations that his agency acted too slowly after Katrina hammered Louisiana and Mississippi, killing more than 1,000 people.
Residents of Punta Gorda are hoping that, if Wilma strikes Charlotte County, the storm will not undo the repairs undertaken after August 2004, when Hurricane Charley pounded the region. Contractors repairing a condominium complex put tarpaulins over drywall, doors and kitchen cabinets awaiting installation.
Some choosing to stay put
Several Punta Gorda residents said they had no immediate plans to leave.
"Me and my wife, we are very prepared ... and we are planning on staying," Harold Clemens said. "We rode Charley out, and we're not going to leave unless things get too bad."
Sarah Borden said she would ride out the hurricane in her house.
"It's so hard to know because, if you rush off now and it may not come, you've wasted all that time, and then, even if you go, you worry about people who are left behind and your house," she said. "So we will stay."
In Lee County to the south, schools will be closed, and county officials could order evacuations on Friday.
Collier County emergency officials planned to mandate evacuations for residents of low-lying areas west and south of U.S. 41 and Tamiami Trail, including Marco Island. Shelters in Collier County are to open at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Officials postponed Saturday's game in Miami between the University of Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech's Yellow Jackets. Also, the Miami Dolphins-Kansas City Chiefs Sunday game was moved up to Friday.
It is the third time since the start of the 2004 NFL season that the Dolphins have rescheduled a home game due to the threat of a hurricane.