Hurricane Wilma rapidly strengthened into one of the Americas' most intense storms ever and lashed Caribbean coastlines Wednesday, forcing tourists to flee as it threatened to slam into Cancun and southern Florida.
Wilma briefly grew into a monstrous Category 5 storm before weakening to a Category 4 Wednesday night. The storm forced thousands of people to evacuate low-lying areas in a 600-mile swath covering Cuba, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti and the Cayman Islands, officials said. At least 13 deaths have been blamed on Wilma this week, including a man who drowned Wednesday while trying to cross a river that overflowed its banks in southern Haiti.
Forecasters said Wilma has the potential to make an extremely damaging impact in a season that has already seen devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With its center still over open water, the storm's sustained winds were near 155 mph Wednesday night, down from 175 mph earlier in the day.
The National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said Wilma could reach the Florida Keys Saturday, possibly toward the evening. Visitors were ordered out of the Florida Keys even as schools closed, the ABC News reports.