October 19, 2005 at 1:18 PM CDT - Updated June 29 at 9:20 PM
by Freddy Cuevas, Associated Press Writer
Gathering strength at a fierce pace, Hurricane Wilma swirled into the most intense Atlantic storm ever recorded Wednesday, a Category 5 monster packing 175 mph wind that forecasters warned was "extremely dangerous."
Wilma was dumping rain on Central America andMexico. A hurricane watch was in effect for the east coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, parts of Cuba and the Cayman Islands, and forecasters warned of a "significant threat" to Florida by the weekend.
"All interests in the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula should closely monitor the progress of extremely dangerous Hurricane Wilma," the NationalHurricaneCenter in Miami said.
Wilma's top sustained winds reached 175 mph early Wednesday in the most rapid strengthening ever recorded in a hurricane, said meteorologist Hugh Cobb of the NationalHurricaneCenter in Miami. At the same time Tuesday, Wilma was only a tropical storm with winds of 70 mph.
Its confirmed pressure readings Wednesday morning dropped to 882 millibars the lowest ever measured in a hurricane in the Atlantic basin, according to the hurricane center. The strongest on record based on the lowest pressure reading is Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which dipped to 888 millibars.
Typically, the lower the pressure, the faster the air speeds. But because the pressure around each storm is different, lower pressure doesn't always correspond to a specific wind speed.
Forecasters said Wilma was more powerful than the devastating September 1935 hurricane that hit the Florida Keys, the strongest Atlantic hurricane to make landfall on record. But Wilma wasn't expected to keep its record strength for long, as higher disruptive atmospheric winds in the Gulf of Mexico around the hurricane should weaken it before landfall, Cobb said.
At 8 a.m., the hurricane was centered about 340 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico. Maximum sustained wind remained at 175 mph, forecasters said. It was moving west-northwest at nearly 8 mph and was expected to turn northwest.
The storm may dump up to 25 inches of rain in mountainous areas of Cuba through Friday, and as much as 15 inches in the Caymans and Jamaica through Thursday. Up to 12 inches was possible from Honduras through the Yucatan peninsula, the U.S. weather service said.
Jamaica, Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras were getting heavy rain from the storm, though it wasn't likely to make landfall in any of those countries. Forecasts showed it would likely turn toward the narrow Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico's Cancun region then move into the storm-weary gulf.
With heavy rain, high wind, and rough seas already pounding coastal areas, flood-prone Honduras warned that Wilma posed "an imminent threat to life and property" and closed two seaports on its Caribbean coast. Neighboring Nicaragua also declared an alert. Authorities in the Cayman Islands had earlier called an alert.
Honduras and its neighbors already are recovering from flooding and mudslides caused earlier this month from storms related to Hurricane Stan. At least 796 people were killed, most of them in Guatemala, with many more still missing.
Cuba issued a hurricane watch for the western end of the island from Matanzas to Pinar del Rio, as well as the Isle of Youth. Mexico issued a hurricane watch for nearly all of its Caribbean coast from Punta Gruesa to Cabo Catoche, an area that includes the resort of Cancun.
Wilma already had been blamed for one death in Jamaica as a tropical depression Sunday. It has flooded several low-lying communities and triggered mudslides that blocked roads and damaged several homes, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica's emergency management office. She said that some 250 people were in shelters throughout the island.
Although the storm was not expected to approach Florida until the weekend, some residents began buying water, canned food and other emergency supplies early. Many said they take every storm seriously now, after witnessing the devastation from a succession of hurricanes that have ravaged the southern United States.
"People have learned their lesson and know better how to prepare. We're not waiting until the last minute anymore," said Andrea Yerger, 48, of Port Charlotte, Fla. She was buying material to protect her house, which had to be gutted because of extensive damage from Hurricane Charley last year.
Wilma's track could take it near Punta Gorda on Florida's southwestern GulfCoast and other areas in the state hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, in August 2004.
Forecasters urged Florida residents to closely monitor Wilma. The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since August 2004, causing more than $20 billion in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.
In the Cayman Islands, authorities urged businesses to close early Tuesday to give employees time to prepare for the storm. Schools were ordered to close on Wednesday.
In Mexico, the MTV Latin America Video Music Awards ceremony, originally scheduled to be held Thursday at a seaside park south of Cancun, were moved up one day to avoid possible effects from Wilma.
Forecasters said Wilma should avoid the central U.S. Gulf coast devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which killed more than 1,200 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
The hurricane is the record-tying 12th of the season, the same number reached in 1969. That is the most for one season since record-keeping began in 1851.
On Monday, Wilma became the Atlantic hurricane season's 21st named storm, tying the record set in 1933 and exhausting the list of names for this year.
The six-month hurricane season does not end until Nov. 30. Any new storms would be named with letters from the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.
Associated Press writers Mitch Stacy in Punta Gorda, Florida, and Jay Ehrhart in George Town, Cayman Islands, contributed to this report. On the Net: