Fla. put on alert for Wilma

Keys visitors ordered to leave hurricane's projected path

Mexico also in danger


FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Much of Florida went on alert yesterday, with the Keys ordering visitors to evacuate, as Wilma exploded into the most intense hurricane on record. Still, a small ray of hope emerged: if Wilma rams into Mexico's Yucatan region, its anticipated right turn toward Florida could be significantly altered and the system's strength could be considerably weakened, the National Hurricane Center said.

"If it goes just 20 or 30 miles inland, the core could be destroyed," said hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart. "A lot will depend on the exact track."

Last night, after a day as a Category 5 hurricane, Wilma was downgraded to a Category 4. The hurricane was southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, slowly churning northwest at 7 mph with sustained winds of nearly 160 mph. Earlier, its internal pressure dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest ever, and it had sustained winds of 175 mph.

The severe weather likely will be widespread because Wilma, like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is expected to grow in size, with its strongest winds likely to extend more than 100 miles from its center, Stewart said.

"We don't want people to treat this as a point on a map, because this is going to be a large hurricane with all the nasty conditions, including strong winds and storm surge," he said. "No matter how you slice it, it's going to be bad this weekend."

He added that Wilma could spawn numerous tornadoes "long before the core gets here."

Depending on the speed of the storm, hurricane watches could be posted for much of the state's east coast by today and hurricane warnings by tomorrow.

The Keys have already declared a state of emergency and ordered visitors to evacuate and called for a voluntary evacuation of all other residents.

Yesterday, Florida residents began stocking up on supplies and waiting in lines for fuel.

Several athletic events already are being postponed or canceled.

At a Publix grocery store in Miramar, Laura Diaz, of Miami Gardens, grabbed about five gallons of water. Although she said she wasn't that concerned about Wilma, she took precautions just in case.

"We have water, dog food, baby food and Pampers," she said. "We've got the generator on standby."

"If it stays on its current path, it will have a direct effect on the safety of numerous student-athletes, institutional personnel, fans and Florida residents," Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford said.

If there was some good news, Wilma was expected to accelerate quickly across the state, possibly at 20 mph, which would move the system out of Florida by Sunday and reduce the potential for flooding rains, forecasters said.

"It's going to be moving really fast by the time it moves across South Florida," said meteorologist Kim Brabander of the National Weather Service in Miami. "By Sunday afternoon, it probably should have cleared out pretty good."

Ken Kaye writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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