Hurricane Wilma Looms Over Southern Florida

MIAMI, Florida, October 24, 2005 (ENS) - Hurricane Wilma is bearing down on southern Florida, after ravaging Mexico's Caribbean coast, where at least three people were killed as a result of the powerful storm. The Category 3 hurricane is packing maximum sustained winds of 115 miles per hour with higher gusts.

Moving at about 18 miles per hour, the hurricane has made a turn to the northeast, and the National Hurricane Center warns that Wilma will make landfall along the southwestern coast of the Florida peninsula early this morning.

Tropical storm force winds are now lashing the southernmost Florida Keys and western Cuba, and a hurricane warning is in effect for all of the Florida Keys. Tourists have fled the island chain, but many residents have remained, defying evacuation orders. They are now being subjected to heavy rains, storm surges that come ashore as walls of water, and the possibility of tornadoes.

At Naval Air Station Key West, Commanding Officer Capt. Jim Scholl closed the base at noon Saturday, ordering all families living in government housing there to evacuate.

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At a Hurricane Wilma news conference, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez urges area residents not to travel if they can avoid it. (Photo courtesy Office of the Mayor)
Miami-Dade County is currently under a hurricane warning. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez is urging residents to stay indoors today, unless they are evacuating. "Be smart, stay off the roads," the mayor said. "Stay home, and be prepared to stay there for a while."

A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for residents who live in mobile homes and a voluntary evacuation order has been issued for residents in low-lying areas, or who do not feel safe in their homes. The American Red Cross has opened three hurricane shelters in Miami high schools to accommodate evacuees.

The Miami International Airport is open, but airlines are not expected to operate until late afternoon Monday. Travelers should call their airlines for more information.

All Miami-Dade public schools are closed Monday and Tuesday.

The National Hurricane Center is projecting the storm path could pass close to two nuclear power plants operated by Florida Power & Light Co. - St. Lucie, near Ft. Pierce, and Turkey Point, 25 miles south of Miami.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says nuclear power plants are "robust structures built to sustain hurricane-force winds," and that power plants are required to shut down in advance of hurricane force winds. Both nuclear plants have two NRC inspectors assigned and additional regional inspectors have been dispatched to provide more coverage to each site. An NRC official is at the Florida Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, to help with coordination.

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The projected track of Hurricane Wilma (Photo courtesy NWS)
Florida Power & Light says it is ready for the impact of Hurricane Wilma and moved into full storm mode Sunday, anticipating that as many as two million customers could be affected.

Last week, FPL began calling utility partners across the country as well as vendors and contractors. As a result, 1,001 out-of-state restoration line and 610 vegetation crews will be available to work along side FPL crews. This is the largest number of external restoration crews that FPL has brought together pre-landfall of any hurricane that FPL has ever worked. Combined with the company's own crews, 5,100 workers will be on the job to restore power after the storm passes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has staged 50 truckloads of ice, 50 truckloads of water, five truckloads of meals at Homestead Air Force Base, and 100 truckloads of ice, 100 truckloads of water, 25 truckloads of meals at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Urban search and rescue teams as well as disaster medical teams are staged at Orlando and at their home bases.

“We urge the public to take this storm seriously and to listen to state and local authorities for instructions,” said FEMA Acting Director David Paulison. “FEMA and the entire federal government stand ready to assist state and local authorities. FEMA will be there to assist throughout the cleanup to recovery of this storm.”

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking surfers, swimmers and mariners to stay out of the water as Coast Guard crews will not be able to rescue people in distress during storm conditions.

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U.S. Coast Guard crew at Miami Beach removes a 47 foot motor life boat from the water in preparation for Hurricane Wilma. (Photo by Ryan Doss courtesy USCG)
But after the storm passes, the Coast Guard will again be conducting rescue operations and has pre-staged aircraft and cutters for immediate response in the wake of the hurricane.

The U.S. Department of Defense has identified eight helicopters for the potential evacuation of residents or transporting of equipment and seven communications teams. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has 1,000 beds prepared for deployment in case of Florida request using Federal Medical Shelters and has an additional 1,000 readily available.

When Wilma became a named tropical storm on October 17, it tied a record for the most named storms in a season dating back to 1933. When Wilma became a hurricane on October 18, it tied the record for the most hurricanes in a season dating back to 1969.

And, when Wilma blew up from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane on the morning of October 19, it broke the all time record for the lowest pressure ever measured in the Atlantic Basin with a minimum central pressure of 882 mb, which was recorded by a NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft. A hurricane’s central pressure is an indicator of its intensity; the lower the pressure, the more intense the storm.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Alpha Sunday became the 22nd named storm of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, breaking the previous record of 21 in 1933. This is the first time the Greek alphabet is being used since the naming of storms began in 1953.