Florida awaits a slow Wilma

Longer the hurricane lingers over Yucatan, more it will weaken


MIAMI -- As Hurricane Wilma slowly bore down on the Yucatan yesterday with the power to wreak havoc on one of Mexico's top tourist destinations, far to the east in Florida, officials and residents began getting ready for the storm's potentially destructive arrival in their state.

"Right now, we're telling our folks to be prepared," said Sherry Montgomery, a government spokeswoman in Charlotte County, home to 150,000 year-round residents on Florida's southwestern coast.

As Wilma, a dangerous Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of near 150 mph, blew toward an expected landfall in the Yucatan peninsula late this morning, its future intensity and course - and the risk it posed for Florida - remained difficult to predict.

Much, said weather experts, was riding on what happens over the next 48 hours.

Ben Nelson, Florida's state meteorologist, said he and many other Floridians would spend what he described as "an agonizing weekend" monitoring Wilma's progress.

As of yesterday, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center expected Wilma to hit Florida late Sunday or early Monday somewhere along its western shore between the northern Gulf Coast and the Keys.

"There are all kinds of possibilities - not many of them good," said Greg Artman, an emergency operations official in the Keys.

In Mexico, officials feared that if Wilma continued on its northwesterly tack, it could sweep along the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

A direct hit there could be a "tremendous disaster," said Jaime Albaran, a meteorologist and spokesman for Mexico's national weather service. "This is a very, very powerful storm."

As Wilma, whose forward motion slowed yesterday to 5 mph, got nearer, Cancun Mayor Francisco Alor announced the evacuation of the city's hotel district. According to Mexican media, about 30,000 tourists had left.

Felix Gonzalez Canto, governor of Quintana Roo province, which includes Cancun, told reporters that police and government workers were going door to door to make sure people with tin roofs and wooden walls had left.

For Florida, Nelson said, the worst-case scenario would be the hurricane remaining over water as it crossed the Yucatan Channel that links the Caribbean Sea with the Gulf of Mexico.

"That would allow it to enter the gulf as a Category 4 hurricane," he said.

And the ideal?

"We're not wishing any harm on the tourist areas of the Yucatan," said Nelson. "But the best scenario for Florida is that the storm stall over the Yucatan for a day or two."

Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency yesterday, giving state officials broad authority to activate the National Guard, order evacuations and distribute recovery supplies.

In the Keys, officials changed the mandatory evacuation from yesterday to today; in South Florida, emergency managers were monitoring the storm to determine whether to call for a coastal evacuation.

John-Thor Dahlburg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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