Published October 20, 2005
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – Hurricane Wilma (search) whirled into the record books as the 12th such storm of the season, strengthening early Wednesday into a Category 4 storm and setting a course to sideswipe Central America and Mexico. Forecasters warned of a "significant threat" to Florida by the weekend.
Wilma grew into a dangerous Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. It was only Tuesday morning that Wilma grew from a tropical storm into a weak hurricane, with 80 mph winds.
The storm could become a Category 5 sometime Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami said.
Forecasters warned that Wilma was likely to rake Honduras and the Cayman Islands before turning toward the narrow Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico's Cancun region — then move into the storm-weary Gulf.
The hurricane's outer bands brought rain, high winds and heavy surf to the Atlantic coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras, which closed two seaports on its Caribbean coast.
By 1 a.m. EDT, the hurricane was centered about 175 miles southwest of Grand Cayman Island and about 400 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico. It was moving toward the west-northwest at nearly 8 mph, according to the Hurricane Center.
"It does look like it poses a significant threat to Florida by the weekend. Of course, these are four- and five-day forecasts, so things can change," said Dan Brown, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
Wilma already had been blamed for one death in Jamaica as a tropical depression Sunday. It has flooded several low-lying communities and triggered mudslides that blocked roads and damaged several homes, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica's emergency management office. She said that some 250 people were in shelters throughout the island.
While some Florida residents started preparing by buying water, canned food and other supplies, hurricane shutters hadn't gone up yet in Punta Gorda, on Florida's Gulf coast, and no long lines had formed for supplies or gas.
Still, Wilma's track could take it near that city and other Florida areas hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, in August 2004. The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since then, causing more than $20 billion in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.
In Mexico, the MTV Latin America Video Music Awards (search) ceremony, originally scheduled to be held Thursday at a seaside park south of Cancun, was moved up one day to avoid possible effects from Wilma.
The storm is the record-tying 12th hurricane of the season, the same number reached in 1969; 12 is the most in one season since record-keeping began in 1851.
On Monday, Wilma became the Atlantic hurricane season's 21st named storm, tying the record set in 1933 and exhausting the list of names for this year.
The deadly season has already witnessed the devastation of Katrina and Rita in the past two months, which killed more than 1,200 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Honduras and its neighbors already are recovering from flooding and mudslides caused earlier this month from storms related to Hurricane Stan. At least 796 people were killed, most of them in Guatemala, with many more still missing.
The government of flood-prone Honduras warned that Hurricane Wilma posed "an imminent threat to life and property of the people of the Atlantic coast." Neighboring Nicaragua also declared an alert.
Honduran President Ricardo Maduro (search) declared "a maximum alert" along the northern coast and his office said emergency personnel and resources had been sent to the area, where evacuations were possible.
In Nicaragua, national disaster prevention chief Geronimo Giusto said the army, police and rescue workers were being mobilized and evacuation points readied.
Authorities in the Cayman Islands earlier called an alert.
Forecasters said Wilma should avoid the central U.S. Gulf coast that was devastated by Katrina (search) andRita (search). "There's no scenario now that takes it toward Louisiana or Mississippi, but that could change," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.
The six-month hurricane season ends Nov. 30. Wilma is the last on the list of storm names for 2005; there are 21 names on the yearly list because the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are skipped.
If any other storms form, letters from the Greek alphabet would be used, starting with Alpha, for the first time. Storms have gotten alphabetical names only in the past 60 years.
There have been 10 late-season hurricanes of Category 3 or higher since 1995.