Published October 21, 2005
| Associated Press
KEY WEST, Fla. – Most of the tourists fled the Florida Keys, but some residents of the island chain didn't seem in a hurry to evacuate as the powerful but slow-moving Hurricane Wilma (search) closed in on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami said Friday that Florida's agonizing wait for Wilma would continue as the hurricane was expected to hover around the Yucatan longer than previously thought.
Landfall somewhere on Florida's western coast was not likely until sometime Monday afternoon, forecasters said.
Mark Brann was relaxing Thursday outside Andy's Scooter Shop, where he works. He had little to do without Key West's usual horde of tourists, who were ordered out on Wednesday.
"Where are you going to go? They don't know where the storm's going," he said. He said he believes he will be safe in his seventh-floor condominium.
The slower forward pace could mean that the storm might be weaker when it reaches Florida.
"If it spends 24 hours or more over [the Yucatan], it's likely to weaken," said Ed Rappaport, the center's deputy director. At 8 a.m. EDT Friday, Wilma's wind was clocked at 145 mph, down slightly from 150 earlier in the day. The storm's outer eyewall made landfall at Cozumel (search), Mexico, about that time.
Authorities took advantage of the unexpected extra day to stockpile emergency supplies.
Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency Thursday. He said the state had food, water, ice and other supplies ready and disaster-response teams that included up to 7,500 National Guard members standing by.
"We are battle-tested, well-resourced, well-trained," he said.
Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center, said the slowdown would likely weaken Wilma from a Category 4 storm to a Category 3 or less before making landfall in the United States.
"The timing is certainly working in our favor," Mayfield said.
But he stressed that Wilma probably would still be a strong hurricane with a powerful storm surge when it reaches Florida.
At 8 a.m. EDT, Wilma was about 425 miles southwest of Key West, according to the hurricane center. It was heading north-northwest at about 6 mph.
After its strike on Yucatan, Wilma was expected to make a turn to the northeast toward Florida because it will be pushed by the westerlies, the strong wind current that generally blows toward the east, forecasters said.
Mayfield said Wilma is unusually large, with an eye 38 miles wide and tropical storm-force winds extending out some 200 miles from the center that could cause widespread damage.
"Don't just focus on the eye of the hurricane," Mayfield said.
State meteorologist Ben Nelson warned that Wilma could produce a storm surge of 12 to 17 feet.
Although Wilma was expected to approach Florida from the west, forecasters warned that major cities on the peninsula's Atlantic Coast, including Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach could be hit by strong wind and heavy rain.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) was positioning emergency materials in Jacksonville, Lakeland and Homestead. FEMA acting chief R. David Paulison said the agency has 150 truckloads of ice and 150 truckloads of water, and the Red Cross has 200,000 meals available.
"We are ready for the storm, as much as you can be," Paulison said in Washington.
The governor urged people not to hoard gasoline, which frequently causes long lines at gas stations and some to run out of fuel. Bush said an estimated 200 million gallons of fuel were available at Florida ports, an adequate supply.
Wilma was on a path that could threaten southwest Florida areas hit by Hurricane Charley in August 2004. Some houses and businesses in the area are still boarded up because of that storm.