KEY WEST, Fla. – Heavy rain from Hurricane Wilma's outer bands battered parts of Florida on Saturday as residents streamed out of the Keys under a mandatory evacuation order and forecasters announced a hurricane watch for the state's entire southern peninsula.
At the same time, a record 22nd tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season formed off the Dominican Republic (search).
In Key West (search), one resident who had yet to heed the evacuation order summed up the feelings of many Floridians when he heard about the newly formed Tropical Storm Alpha.
"Oh, lovely, that's nice," said a sarcastic John Cline, a guest house worker having a drink at Mangoe's Restaurant on Duval Street in Key West. "Will it ever end?"
As residents boarded up windows and some fled Wilma's path, state and federal officials prepared for the hurricane, expected to make landfall on Florida's gulf coast Monday morning. It would be the eighth hurricane to hit or at least brush Florida since August 2004.
A hurricane watch was out for a large part of state — about 400 miles along the west coast from Key West to the Tampa Bay (search) area and nearly 400 miles along the east coast from Titusville south. A watch means hurricane conditions, including winds in excess of 74 mph, are possible within 36 hours.
Dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals were on standby, said FEMA (search) spokesman Butch Kinerney.
"We're ready for Wilma and, whatever the storm brings, we're set to go," Kinerney said.
Four to 8 inches of rain were expected in southern Florida through Tuesday, with up to a foot in some areas. Category 2 hurricanes can have a 12- to 14-foot storm surge, and a Category 3 could bring 17 feet.
"The people on the west coast are going to have a real problem," said Stephen Baig, a storm surge specialist at the hurricane center.
Forecasters said that with hurricane force winds stretching for 170 miles, Wilma could devastate a large swath of the state.
Saturday evening, Wilma had top sustained winds near 100 mph as it moved northward about 30 miles north-northwest of Cancun, Mexico, and about 390 miles west-southwest of Key West.
The storm, already blamed for 16 deaths in the Caribbean and Mexico, was expected to turn to the northwest and strengthen as a strong wind current was forecast to steer it toward Florida.
"We think it will likely be weakening as it moves over Florida. But if it is weakened down from a Category 3, that is still a very significant hurricane," said National Hurricane Center (search) Director Max Mayfield.
In the Fort Lauderdale area, dozens of residents were already dealing with hip-deep flooding from Wilma's outer bands a full two days before the storm was expected to barrel ashore. Five inches of rain overnight forced the evacuation of about 50 houses and apartments.
"We've got two more days before the hurricane," said Belinda Orange, 31, who had about a foot of water in her Oakland Park home. "What are we going to do?"
This has already been a tough year when it comes to hurricanes. With more than month left in the six-month Atlantic season, the annual list of storm names was exhausted with Wilma and forecasters had to turn to the Greek alphabet for the first time in six decades of naming storms, starting Saturday with Tropical Storm Alpha.
Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson said the streets of his island city were mostly quiet Saturday with the entire island chain under an evacuation order.
In southwest Florida, Collier County officials also urged people in coastal areas including Marco Island and parts of Naples to evacuate.
But customers were still sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes in Naples. And while workers installed metal panels over the windows at city hall, residents played tennis across the street at Cambier Park.
"Wilma hasn't decided what she's going to do," said 60-year-old Pat Girard, a New Jersey transplant. "Playing tennis is very much of a stress reliever."