Another tropical storm forms in the Caribbean

Strengthening Wilma could hit Gulf Coast or Mexico

1933 record of 21 storms is tied


MIAMI -- Forecasters reached the last name on this year's list when Tropical Storm Wilma, a likely future hurricane that could threaten the U.S. Gulf Coast, formed in the Caribbean yesterday.

"This is the first time we've ever gotten 21 storms" in one season, said Mark McInerney, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center here.

There were 21 tropical storms in 1933, McInerney said, but they weren't given names in those days.

Because the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z aren't used, any other storms that form during the busy 2005 Atlantic season, which ends Nov. 30, will be given names from the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.

Some computer models indicate that Wilma - 255 miles southeast of Grand Cayman yesterday afternoon - could pass through the Gulf of Mexico before curving toward the western coast of Florida by the weekend.

Experts said Wilma is further proof that the Atlantic is in an active storm-generating phase that could last 20 years.

"We really don't know what causes it," said Cary J. Mock, a paleoclimatologist at the University of South Carolina.

"It does relate to a broad conveyor belt of oceanic circulation that goes all around the world, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean."

Phil Klotzbach, a research associate in the department of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, said water and wind conditions are favorable for spawning tropical storms.

"Basically this year, the water temperatures in the Atlantic have been very warm," Klotzbach said. "We're talking about 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal.

"It's not a huge difference, but it's enough."

As Wilma - which had sustained winds of nearly 50 mph yesterday afternoon - gathered strength, the Cayman Islands issued a tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch.

Honduras also was under a tropical storm warning.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm could drop 4 to 6 inches of rain on the Cayman Islands and Jamaica.

Wilma is expected to turn toward the northwest today, with its winds increasing to at least 74 mph, which is hurricane intensity, McInerney said.

That would make Wilma the 12th hurricane of the year, tying a record set in 1969.

The models indicate that Wilma will pass or nick Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, McInerney said. Then, he said, it "could go anywhere."

National Hurricane Center officials said no forecasts yesterday show Wilma hitting Louisiana or Mississippi, which were battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But "everybody needs to watch, from Mexico to Florida," Klotzbach said.

Records on tropical storms have been kept since 1851. The practice of naming them began with a list of female names in 1953. Male names were added to the list in 1979.

John-Thor Dahlburg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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