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Track prediction hit mark, but timing was off

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published October 25, 2005


Wilma took longer than expected to reach Florida, but the National Hurricane Center's forecast of where it would make landfall was nearly dead on.

Wilma came ashore just 22 miles south of Naples, where hurricane center meteorologists had repeatedly warned it would.

And the hurricane entered the Atlantic Ocean near Boynton Beach, almost precisely where the center said Wilma would track.

"They had the track forecast predicted as far back as Tuesday," said WTSP-Ch. 10 lead meteorologist Dick Fletcher. "You can't get much better than that."

The timing and intensity weren't forecast as accurately, at least at first.

The hurricane center's early predictions had the storm hitting Florida late Friday or early Saturday. The slowdown as Wilma moved north in the Caribbean Sea and then nearly stalled over the Yucatan pushed those estimates back several times. By the weekend, the center settled on Monday morning.

Hurricane intensity is difficult to predict days in advance, meteorologists say. As Wilma moved off the Yucatan, the hurricane center forecast that strong upper level winds would likely keep the storm from significantly reintensifying as it approached Florida.

They reconsidered after the storm began moving toward the state, saying it could be as powerful as a Category 3, which it turned out to be.

The upper level winds were not a strong as originally predicted, said hurricane center meteorologist Mark McInerney.

"Hurricane forecasting is a combination of physics and meteorology," McInerney said. "It's not an exact science."

Some cities on the east coast appeared to be caught off guard by the power Wilma retained as it crossed the state.

McInerney said he would refer anyone on Florida's east coast who did not feel adequately informed to the dozens of written forecasts and warnings the center issued in the days leading up to landfall.

As Wilma approached, hurricane center director Max Mayfield also warned that it was an unusually large storm, with tropical storm force winds stretching more than 200 miles from the eye. The center also issued repeated warnings that the speed of the storm would allow it to cross to the east coast of the state packing hurricane force winds.

On Saturday afternoon, the center issued a hurricane watch for the entire east coast of Florida south of Titusville down through the Keys.

Mayfield said Monday that he was annoyed that so many people appeared surprised by Wilma and failed to heed evacuation warnings.

"We've been preaching this for decades, and you know, the government can only do so much," he said. "I don't know how we motivate people."

--Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Graham Brink can be reached at 727 893-8406 or brink@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 25, 2005, 04:20:55]


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