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Headed our way

Two days of deadly winds and rain lash the luxury playground on Mexico's coast before the storm turns in Florida's direction.

By Compiled from staff and wire reports
Published October 23, 2005

After a punishing two-day assault on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Hurricane Wilma gained speed and headed toward Florida late Saturday, its outer bands already spawning heavy rains and flooding parts of Fort Lauderdale.

"The worst of it is yet to come," said Jamie Rhome, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "We'll see a deterioration of the weather beginning in earnest Sunday afternoon."

The hurricane could affect a wide swath of the state, with the potential for 100 mph sustained winds and storm surge of 12 feet or higher.

"Anybody who looks at this and says, "It's only a Category 2' needs to be re-examined," Rhome said. Hurricane Katrina, he cautioned, came across the Florida peninsula as a Category 1.

Computer models seemed to agree that the southern portion of Florida would get hit sometime Monday, said hurricane specialist Richard Knabb.

"But we can't be exact, of course, on where the system is going to go. And it is imperative that people realize that where the exact center goes is important but it is not the entire story" because Wilma is a large storm that will spread winds and rain over a wide area, Knabb said.

As residents boarded up windows and fled Wilma's path, state and federal officials prepared for the hurricane, expected to make landfall on Florida's gulf coast Monday morning.

Wilma would be the eighth hurricane to hit or at least brush Florida since August 2004.

Saturday evening, Wilma had top sustained winds near 100 mph as it moved northward about 30 miles north-northwest of Cancun, Mexico, and about 390 miles west-southwest of Key West.

A hurricane watch was out for a large part of Florida - about 400 miles along the west coast from Key West to the Tampa Bay area and nearly 400 miles along the east coast from Titusville south.

"We think it will likely be weakening as it moves over Florida. But if it is weakened down from a Category 3, that is still a very significant hurricane," National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield said.

Residents streamed out of the Keys under a mandatory evacuation order, leaving a barren scene behind. Some, though, stuck around.

"I'm going to wait and see what category it is," said Andy Arnold, who was putting off the decision whether to leave his house about two blocks from the ocean in Key West. "But at the same time, I'm not going to be stupid."

Once a Category 5 storm, Wilma was downgraded Saturday to a Category 2 as it lashed at the Mexican beach cities of Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

Tens of thousands of tourists were stranded in hot, leaky shelters, while a maelstrom of howling winds, uprooted trees and hurtling debris raged on all sides.

At least four deaths were reported: Two in a gas tank explosion in Playa del Carmen, one woman electrocuted in Cancun and a 69-year-old man killed by falling branches in a neighboring state.

The number of injuries in Mexico was unknown, as was the extent of property damage, but it was widespread and expected to run into many millions of dollars.

Five homes were destroyed and 1,000 others were damaged in Playa del Carmen.

In Cancun, 50 hotels and hundreds of homes were damaged, public buildings were crumbling, windows were shattered and a coast known as a luxury playground overlooking a turquoise sea was transformed into a vast region of danger and destruction.

The wind ripped part of the ceiling off a gymnasium-turned-shelter, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,000 people.

"I never in my life wanted to live through something like this," said hotel cook Guadalupe Santiago, 27. "There are no words to describe it."

The storm also washed out roads in mudslides and devastated countless flimsy shacks and jungle cabins that are home to the Yucatan's impoverished people, tens of thousands whose hardscrabble lives are largely hidden from the tourists who are behind the facades of the elegant high-rise hotels and on the postcard-perfect white beaches.

Last week, when Wilma was a Category 5 hurricane rumbling westward in the Caribbean, it set a record for the lowest atmospheric pressure recorded in an Atlantic basin storm, making it the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever.

After reaching land, Wilma may have set another record. On Isla Mujeres, just off the coast of Cancun, a weather station reported 64 inches of rain over a 24-hour period. Mexican weather officials said that, if confirmed, it would be a record for rainfall in Mexico, and more than triple the amount left by the last two hurricanes to pass through the peninsula.

Now it is Florida's turn.

Across the state Saturday, emergency teams began staging for recovery efforts, from stashing dozens of trailers of ice, food, water and tarps in Homestead and Jacksonville, south and north of the anticipated landfall, to making plans to mobilize at least 2,500 National Guard soldiers and airmen starting today.

Search and rescue teams from Tennessee and Virginia were already in Orlando to supplement local Florida teams also on standby from the Tampa Bay area, Orlando, Jacksonville, Daytona Beach and north-central Florida.

State officials also said they have already discussed with the National Guard and the military alternative transportation for search and rescue teams should Wilma destroy bridges to the Keys or significantly damage roads elsewhere.

"We won't wait for the winds to stop blowing, we won't wait for the skies to turn blue. We'll get wet and it may be a little dark and windy, but the citizens that are impacted, they should know Florida is a team - and we will be responding," said state Emergency Management director Craig Fugate.

Tampa Bay area emergency officials were also keeping a close eye on Wilma, though the slow pace seemed to ease tension.

"We're in neutral," said Dennis LaMonde of Hillsborough County's Public Safety Department. "It's sitting in Mexico. There's not a whole lot to do."

Hillsborough officials expect to take a similar wait-and-see stance today, too, as they don't expect to feel the storm's effects until late Monday.

Staff writers Joni James, Justin George and Alex Leary contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press, New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

[Last modified October 23, 2005, 01:39:10]

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