Hurricane Wilma roars toward Mexico and US

A monstrous Hurricane Wilma barrelled toward Mexico and the storm-weary United States coast on Thursday, forcing tens of thousands to flee coastlines after it mushroomed into the most powerful storm recorded to date in the Atlantic.

The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said the “extremely dangerous” behemoth had weakened slightly to a category-four hurricane, packing winds of 240kph, as it continued to swirl toward Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which is popular among European and US tourists.

However, the NHC said Wilma “could regain category-five intensity”, pushing wind speeds closer to 280kph, as they were clocked on Wednesday. Five is the top category on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.

“The storm is very powerful and very threatening,” said Mexican President Vicente Fox, adding that authorities are prepared for its impact.

Cuba started to evacuate 235 000 people, while tens of thousands of tourists were ordered out of Cancun, Mexico, and the Florida Keys island chain.

Mexican authorities ordered the evacuation of more than 33 000 tourists vacationing in two islands off Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Holbox, and from the Punta Allen laguna south of here. Another 70 000 in Cancun itself were advised to leave the area.

Quitana Roo state, on the eastern edge of the Yucatan peninsula, which includes the resorts of Cancun and Cozumel, was put under a red alert by Governor Felix Gonzaelez to prepare for Wilma’s fury.

The storm also forced the cancellation of the MTV Video Music Awards Latin America ceremony, planned for Wednesday night in Cancun.

The peninsula could be hit by hurricane conditions in the next 24 hours, according to the NHC, which warned that “preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion”.

“All those here should take necessary precautions: first, tourists should return to their cities of origin; second, homes and boats should be secured,” said Roberto Vargas, a civil protection official in Cancun.

The NHC warned that Yucatan could be hit by storm-surge flooding of 2m to 3m above normal tide, along with “large and dangerous battering waves”, if Wilma’s eye makes landfall on the peninsula.

Forecasters then expect Wilma to make a sharp turn to the north-east towards Florida, which is bracing for the hurricane to arrive on Sunday, and a state of emergency has been declared in the Keys.

President George Bush has been briefed on the storm, a spokesperson said, and he called on Americans to heed warnings about Wilma.

Fluctuating intensity

At 9am GMT on Thursday, Wilma was about 315km south-east of Cozumel. Wind speed had dropped from 250kph to 240kph.

“Fluctuations in intensity are common in hurricanes of this intensity [and] are likely in the next 24 hours,” said the NHC. “Wilma could regain category-five intensity on Thursday.”

On Wednesday, the hurricane’s barometric pressure had dropped to 882 millibars, “the lowest pressure on record for a hurricane in the Atlantic basin”, the NHC said. The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm is.

At least 11 people have been killed in flooding after two weeks of torrential rainfall in much of Haiti, but authorities made no immediate link to Wilma.

Widespread flooding and landslides were reported in Jamaica from rainfall sparked by the hurricane, and nearly 64cm of rain is expected to drench mountainous areas of Cuba until Friday.

World oil prices have eased, however, amid hopes that Wilma would not hit oil installations on the storm-weary US Gulf Coast.

It is the 12th full-blown hurricane of the Atlantic season, and a series of storms have left thousands dead in Central America and along the US Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1 200 people on the US Gulf Coast after it struck on August 29, and Hurricane Stan left more than 2 000 dead or missing in Guatemala earlier this month. Dozens more were killed by the storm in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico.

Authorities in Central America kept a close eye on Wilma’s progress, with alerts issued in Costa Rica and Honduras, while Guatemala remained in a state of emergency from Stan. But no mass evacuations were ordered.

Florida has already been battered by hurricanes Dennis and Katrina this year, and the state’s Governor, Jeb Bush, brother of the president, was downcast at the prospect of a fresh hit.

“Why us?” he said. “How does a storm take a sharp 90-degree turn?”—AFP

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