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Hurricane Wilma slowly approaches Florida
Updated: 2005-10-21 20:03

Most of the tourists fled the Florida Keys, but some residents of the island chain didn't seem in a hurry to evacuate as Hurricane Wilma churned slowly through the Caribbean.

In this picture provided by the Florida Keys News Bureau, Carol Shaughnessy, inspects the Southernmost Point marker in Key West, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005, after it was wrapped in plastic to protect it if Hurricane Wilma threatens Key West. One of the most photographed visitor icons in the Florida Keys, the marker was being painted and city public works' officials want to ensure the new paint remains intact. [AP]

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Wilma would likely strike Florida's western coast sometime Monday afternoon, more than two days later than previously thought.

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.

"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.

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 with sustained 150 mph winds 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.

Wilma was expected to make a turn to the northeast toward Florida after striking Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in the western Caribbean Sea.

The storm should eventually make a sharp right turn toward Florida because it will get caught in 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.

At 5 a.m. EDT, Wilma was about 55 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, and about 430 miles southwest of Key West, according to the hurricane center. It was heading northwest at about 6 mph toward the Yucatan Peninsula, where Mayfield predicted it could do catastrophic damage.

Forecasters said it could regain Category 5 strength Friday with winds of 156 mph or more.

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 winds and heavy rains.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency 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, enough for an adequate supply.

Wilma was on a path that could threaten areas hit by Hurricane Charley in August 2004. Some houses and businesses in the area are still boarded up because of that storm.

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