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Wilma May Not Hit Fla. Until Sunday

October 20, 2005

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) _ Amid anxiety and uncertainty over the path of Hurricane Wilma, many Floridians weren’t taking any chances, but the state got a little breathing room Thursday when the storm’s slower pace postponed its likely landfall.

Across Florida’s southwest coast, people put up shutters, bought canned goods and bottled water and waited in ever-growing lines at gas stations. Officials began clearing tourists out of the low-lying Florida Keys but postponed the evacuation of island residents.

Wilma weakened slightly Thursday, but was still a Category 4 storm with 145 mph winds. That was down from 150 mph earlier in the day and 175 mph Wednesday, when its intensity, measured by internal barometric pressure, dropped to a record low.

At 8 a.m. EDT, forecasters said Wilma was about 175 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, and about 475 miles south-southwest of Key West. It was heading west-northwest toward Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula near 7 mph, forecasters said

Wilma had slowed down as it approached Yucatan, and its slow pass over land in Mexico could weaken it further before the expected turn toward Florida.

``Because it is moving slower, we don’t anticipate it making landfall in Florida until sometime on Sunday,″ a day later than previously forecast, hurricane center meteorologist Jennifer Pralgo said.

``We expect it to be a Category 2 at landfall″ in Florida, Pralgo said. Category 2 hurricanes have 96-110 mph winds.

Because Wilma’s forward motion had slowed, officials in the Florida Keys put off the mandatory evacuation of residents until Friday. Tourists had been told to leave Wednesday, and the streets were almost empty early Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, Gus Rivero, his wife and two children loaded plywood into a pickup truck so they could board up their home. But Rivero said if Wilma approaches Florida this weekend with anything like the power of Hurricane Katrina, he and his family will flee east to Miami.

``We don’t want to take the risk,″ Rivero said. ``I want to save what I can save. I love my family.″

Many Floridians were hopeful that nature will spare the region entirely.

``We’ve had them come this way before, but they’ve turned in the past,″ said Joanne Weaver, a real estate agent and 40-year resident of Marco Island, about 20 miles south of Naples. ``We’re hoping that will happen again this time.″

But residents remained wary, having seen what Katrina and Rita did in Louisiana and Mississippi and what their own state suffered last year with four hurricanes in quick succession.

``We had well over a 1,000 lives lost in Katrina,″ National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said. ``If Wilma, you know, comes into the U.S., to the Florida coast as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, that potential for large loss of life is with us.″

At one point early Wednesday, Wilma was the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic as measured by its pressure. The storm’s pressure dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest reading ever in an Atlantic-basin hurricane. Typically, the lower the pressure, the faster the sustained wind.

The previous strongest Atlantic storm on record, based on pressure readings, had been Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which registered 888 millibars.

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

The White House promised to stay on top of the situation, hoping to avoid a repeat of the slow initial response to Katrina. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was positioning emergency materials in Jacksonville, Lakeland and Homestead.

Gov. Jeb Bush said the state had ample supplies of food, water and ice ready for hard-hit areas.

Sean Mayo was filling up his sport utility vehicle’s 26-gallon tank and a five-gallon gas can in Marco Island. ``We don’t know if there will be any shortages. I need to make sure I got enough gas to get to Lauderdale and back,″ he said.

Although Wilma was approaching from the west, forecasters warned that Atlantic Coast cities such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach could be hit by strong winds.

Forecasters expect the storm to make a sharp right turn toward Florida after hitting Yucatan because it will get caught in the westerlies, the strong wind current that generally blows toward the east.

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Associated Press writers Mitch Stacy in Sarasota and Mike Schneider in Bradenton contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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