October 20, 2005 at 2:14 PM CDT - Updated June 29 at 9:20 PM
by Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer
Hurricane Wilma weakened slightly before it roared towardMexico's Yucatan peninsula and southern Florida early Thursday, leaving 13 people dead in its wake and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands in coastal areas from Honduras to the Florida Keys.
Wilma briefly grew into a monstrous Category 5 storm before weakening to a Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. Forecasters at the NationalHurricaneCenter in Miami said the storm was "extremely dangerous" and was expected to make a beeline for the resort of Cancun, hitting land early Friday.
Tourists were ordered out of the Florida Keys and the island of Isla Mujeres near Cancun on Wednesday, and authorities were poised to move out thousands of others Thursday from low-lying areas in a 600-mile swath covering Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti and the Cayman Islands.
"People should take this hurricane very seriously," said Scott McClellan, President Bush's spokesman.
Some of the estimated 70,000 tourists still in Cancun and surrounding areas were taking the warnings more seriously than others, as heavy rains began lashing the city. The Senor Frog's restaurant in Cancun sponsored a "Hurricane Wilma" party, but it was far from full.
Standing knee-deep in the ocean and drinking beer in Playa de Carmen, south of Cancun, Mike Goepfrich, of Minneapolis, Minnesota said: "As long as they give me beer in the shelter, and my kids are safe, we'll be fine. We're going to ride it out here."
Nearby, fisherman Rolando Ramirez, 51, was helping others pull their fishing boats from the water in preparation for Wilma's passage.
"People here aren't concerned about anything," Ramirez said. "They don't know that when the hurricane comes, this will all be under water."
Wilma was centered 195 miles southeast of Mexico's Cozumel Island, and was moving northwest at 8 mph. The storm was expected to hit the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, near Cancun, early Friday before turning northeast toward southern Florida. Forecasters said it could strengthen before hitting land.
Countries across the region prepared for the worst. Much of Central America and southern Mexico was still recovering from Hurricane Stan, which left more than 1,500 people dead or missing. Americans were still mourning 1,200 GulfCoast victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
In the coastal state of Quintana Roo which includes Cancun officials ordered the evacuation of four low-lying islands, including Isla Mujeres, and also closed the popular cruise ship port on the island of Cozumel.
"This is getting very powerful, very threatening," Mexican President Vicente Fox said of the hurricane. Hundreds of schools in Quintana Roo were ordered closed Thursday and Friday, and many will be used as storm shelters.
Predictions differed on where the hurricane would go and how strong it would be when it reaches U.S. shores, where Florida residents began buying water, canned food and other emergency supplies.
Wilma's track could take it near Punta Gorda on Florida's southwestern GulfCoast and other areas hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, in August 2004.
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.
"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, Florida.
Wilma could charge rapidly across southern Florida on Saturday, leading to the cancellation of a football game between No. 6 Miami and Georgia Tech. MTV postponed the Video Music Awards Latin America ceremony that was originally scheduled for Thursday at a seaside park south of Cancun.
On Wednesday, tourists packed Cancun's airport looking for flights home or to other resorts.
Mark Carara cut his family's vacation short by two days, and tried to get on a standby flight home to Colorado Springs.
"You hear it was the biggest storm on record, and yeah, that was the clincher right there," he said. "It was time for us to go."
Heavy rain, high winds and rough seas pounded coastal areas of Honduras on Wednesday, knocking out power to about 20 towns, cutting off roads to four others and forcing the evacuation of coastal villages and the closure of two Caribbean ports.
Four fishermen were reported missing at sea and about 500 U.S. and European tourists were moved to safe locations at hotels on Honduras' BayIslands.
The head of Haiti's civil protection agency, Maria Alta Jean-Baptiste, said that at least 12 people had died in rain and landslides there since Monday. At least 2,000 Haitian families had been forced from flooded homes.
Cuban authorities suspended classes in the threatened western province of Pinar del Rio and prepared to evacuate tourists from campgrounds and low-lying areas, according to Granma, the Communist Party daily.
Heavy rains in the island's eastern province of Granma forced the evacuations of more than 1,000 people.
Jamaica, where heavy rains have fallen since Sunday, closed almost all schools and 350 people were living in shelters. One man died Sunday in a rain-swollen river.
In the Cayman Islands, schools and most businesses were closed as heavy rains fell intermittently.
In Belize, a nation south of Mexico's YucatanPeninsula, officials canceled cruise ship visits and tourists were evacuated from islands offshore.
Wilma's confirmed pressure readings early Wednesday dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest minimum pressure ever measured in a hurricane in the Americas, according to the hurricane center. Lower pressure translates into higher wind speed.
The strongest Atlantic storm on record, based on pressure readings, had been Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which registered 888 millibars.
Forecasters said Wilma should avoid the central U.S. Gulf coast devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita earlier this year. Those storms killed more than 1,200 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Wilma is the record-tying 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, the same number reached in 1969. Records have been kept since 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, Vanessa Arrington in Havana, Cuba, and Jay Ehrhart in George Town, Cayman Islands, contributed to this report.