Wilma set to hit Fla. today

Officials worry that too many residents are choosing to stay put

October 24, 2005|By JOE NEWMAN, DAPHNE SASHIN AND MAYA BELL | JOE NEWMAN, DAPHNE SASHIN AND MAYA BELL,ORLANDO SENTINEL

NAPLES, Fla. -- Hurricane Wilma threatened to wreak havoc across a wide swath of the state as it sped toward landfall early today, showing no signs of the weakening that forecasters had hoped for.

The sprawling but speedy storm packed winds of Category 3 strength, heavy rains and a substantial storm surge that could reach a devastating 17 feet.

Early this morning, the National Hurricane Center said Wilma's maximum sustained winds had picked up to 115 mph, or Category 3. Some further strengthening could occur before landfall this morning, they said.

Tornadoes that spun off the storm system damaged a restaurant yesterday in Cocoa Beach and an orchid nursery on Merritt Island, near Kennedy Space Center.Although the official forecast track showing Wilma's core coming ashore south of Naples has been "remarkably steady," it would not be surprising for it to shift to the right or left, forecasters said.

"It's like a top spinning on a table. You can't say exactly where it will land," said Jamie Rhome, a Hurricane Center meteorologist.

In Central Florida, tropical storm-force winds of 40 mph to 60 mph with up to 2 to 4 inches of rain are expected. Parts of southern Osceola and Brevard counties could see hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or higher.

Storm-weary residents from Orlando to the south made preparations for what could be Florida's worst storm of this record-breaking hurricane season. Central Florida schools and many businesses, including Walt Disney World, decided to close today.

Last night, Gov. Jeb Bush asked his brother, President Bush, to grant the state a major disaster declaration for 14 counties ahead of the storm.

Nearly 80 percent of people living in the Naples and Marco Island evacuation zones moved to safer areas, officials said, and 2,000 wary residents flocked to nine county shelters.

"People are evacuating who never would have left before," said Naples Police Chief Steve Moore.

But in the Florida Keys, officials said only 5 percent to 7 percent of Monroe County residents evacuated - a major worry for state officials.

"All I can tell people in the Keys that are going to ride this one out: One of these days your luck is going to run out," said state emergency management director Craig Fugate.

In Brevard County, about 1,000 people had flocked to five Red Cross shelters by last night. Just north of Naples in Punta Gorda, which took the brunt of Hurricane Charley's wrath last year, more than 1,100 people still living in FEMA emergency mobile homes had evacuated by yesterday afternoon.

Martha Dion, who lost her home to Charley, anxiously looked around her new mobile home yesterday and expressed what many along this storm's path were feeling.

"I can't do this again. I don't want to do this again," she said. "It gets to be really depressing."

A hurricane with heft, Wilma notched the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin before striking the Yucatan. Now it promises to cause grief across a large section of Florida no matter where it comes knocking.

Joe Newman, Daphne Sashin and Maya Bell write for the Orlando Sentinel.

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