Wilma's winds bend sturdy trees and bring diagonal sheets of rain
Hurricane Wilma still remains a highly dangerous Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds. The National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida, said that by early today, the storm's wobbly centre was roughly 100 miles south east of Cozumel, a popular holiday island where the storm was likely to hit first before heading to Cancun.
Mexican officials said the hurricane, which killed at least 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica, is expected to make a direct hit at top speed on the island of Cozumel today, then slam Cancun and sideswipe Cuba. Forecasters said it would then swing around to the north east and charge at hurricane-weary Florida on Sunday.
Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency to ensure that necessary supplies and disaster response teams were in place. Bush said the state had food, water, ice and other supplies ready, as well as disaster-response teams that included up to 7,500 National Guard members. "We are battle-tested, well-resourced, well-trained," he said.
The storm had strengthened slightly, and forecasters said it could regain Category 5 strength winds of 251km/h or more, AP reports.
Lashing wind and rain pounded Mexican beach resorts on Friday and thousands of tourists hunkered down in shelters to escape Hurricane Wilma. Heavy rain was coming down in diagonal sheets and howling winds were buckling sturdy trees. Cuba evacuated 220,000 people and residents of southern Florida stocked up on drinking water and gas to prepare for Wilma.
Mexican authorities said close to 22,000 tourists and locals residents had been evacuated from low-lying coastal areas. Conditions were far tougher for hundreds of migrant construction workers, mostly from the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, who were evacuated from temporary digs in outdoor camps and building sites.
Wilma became the strongest Atlantic storm on record in terms of barometric pressure on Wednesday. It weakened to a Category 4 hurricane, then picked up again as it headed for Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where it was expected to hit around noon on Friday.
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