Strongest Atlantic Hurricane on Record, Wilma Aims at Gulf of Mexico

MIAMI, Florida, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - This Atlantic hurricane season appears to have saved the worst for last. At the tail end of an already devastating season, Category 5 Hurricane Wilma has claimed 13 lives in Carribean countries and is now threatening Mexico, Florida and the Atlantic coast of the United States. At noon today, Florida emergency management officials ordered all nonresidents to evacuate the state.

Overnight in the northwestern Caribbean Sea, Hurricane Wilma strengthened faster than any other known storm. Wilma strengthened from a Category 2 hurricane to Category 5 status within a three hour time span overnight, as maximum sustained winds increased from 100 to 175 miles per hour.

Based on minimum central pressure measurements, Wilma is now the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic basin since reliable records have been kept.

The path of the storm is not forcast to touch the battered Gulf Coast states just beginning to recover from earlier hurricanes.

Thirteen people lost their lives to the storm in Jamaica, Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras, officials say, although it did not make landfall in any of those countries.

A six day forecast map produced by the National Hurricane Center in Miami shows Wilma striking Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and then turning north-northeast to blast across Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, New York and New England before entering Canada after October 24.

map

This map produced by the National Hurricane Center shows a projected path of Hurricane Wilma from today through October 24. (Map courtesy NHC)
This morning, Wilma was a Category 5 hurricane with an eye six miles wide located about 325 miles to the southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, or about 495 miles to the south-southwest of Key West, Florida.

Maximum sustained winds are near 175 mph, and Wilma is moving towards the west-northwest near seven mph. Hurricane force winds now extend outwards up to 50 miles from Wilma's eye, and tropical storm force winds extend outwards to 160 miles.

Calling Wilma "formidable" and "extremely dangerous," the National Hurricane Center in Miami warned this morning, "Wilma continues toward the Yucatan as a potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane."

A hurricane warning is in effect from San Felipe to Tulum on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, including the resort island of Cozumel and the nearby islands.

Wilma is expected to produce 10 to 15 inches of rain with local amounts near 25 inches in mountainous terrain across Cuba through Friday. Similar total rainfall forecasts were issued today for the Cayman Islands and Jamaica through Thursday.

In Central America, rainfall of up to 12 inches is possible from Honduras north to the Yucatan Peninsula through Thursday. If the center of Wilma makes landfall on the Yucatan Peninsula, coastal storm surge flooding of seven to 10 feed above normal tides along with large, dangerous battering waves can be expected near the center.

The official forecast keeps Wilma at Category 4 strength or greater during the next three days, although some fluctuations in intensity are expected as internal processes within the eyewall of the hurricane govern its strength.

Computer models are in agreement that the ridge of high pressure in the Gulf of Mexico will weaken during the next few days, which will allow Wilma to gradually turn northwestward and northward towards the Yucatan channel by Friday.

Wilma

GOES satellite image of Hurricane Wilma taken today. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
A cold front will also move into the southeastern United States on Friday and begin to influence Wilma's path by Friday night or Saturday morning as the hurricane enters the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.

Computer model guidance is in fairly good agreement on Wilma's path as the hurricane accelerates towards Florida on Saturday. Wind shear ahead of the approaching frontal boundary may weaken Wilma to a Category 3 hurricane just before a potential landfall on Saturday afternoon or evening, forecasters say.

Tropical storm conditions may begin to spread over the lower Keys by early Saturday morning, with these conditions spreading into southwest and then south Florida by the early afternoon hours if the current forecast verifies.

While it is too early to be specific on a landfall point, emergency management officials are warning residents in the Keys, west central, southwest, and south Florida to prepare as if they will be impacted by a major hurricane.

"Wilma is expected to accelerate to a nearly 25 mph speed by Saturday night and Sunday, which will not allow the hurricane to significantly weaken as it potentially crosses the peninsula or the Keys. Wilma poses a significant wind and tornado threat for areas along and to the right of the path of the hurricane's eye on Saturday afternoon and Saturday night," the Florida Division of Emergency Management advises.

Although there are no hurricane watches currently in place, a mandatory evacuation of nonresidents and visitors to the Florida Keys began at noon today. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection today announced the closure of 10 state parks in South Florida due to the approaching hurricane.

Emergency management officials advise Floridians living in the Keys and the peninsula to make sure that family disaster preparedness plans are completed during the next few days, agree on a destination after evacuation, and restock the family disaster supply kit.

Wilma also set records by becoming the 21st named storm of the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane season. This made 2005 the most active hurricane season on record, tied with 1933.