Hurricane Wilma weakened slightly as it roared toward Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and southern Florida, leaving 13 people dead and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands in coastal areas from Honduras to the Florida Keys.
Wilma briefly grew into a monstrous Category 5 storm before weakening to a Category 4 Wednesday night.
Tourists were ordered out of the Florida Keys and the island of Isla Mujeres near Cancun on Wednesday, and authorities were poised to move out thousands of others Thursday from low-lying areas in a 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) swath covering Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti and the Cayman Islands.
"People should take this hurricane very seriously," said Scott McClellan, spokesman for President George W. Bush. "The potential for large loss of life is with us," Max Mayfield, the director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, referring to Wilma's possible landfall Saturday in Florida.
Some of the estimated 70,000 tourists still in Cancun and surrounding areas were taking the warnings more seriously than others, as heavy rains began lashing the city. The Senor Frog's restaurant in Cancun sponsored a "Hurricane Wilma" party, but it was far from full.
Standing knee-deep in the ocean and drinking beer in Playa de Carmen, south of Cancun, Mike Goepfrich, of Minneapolis, Minnesota said "as long as they give me beer in the shelter, and my kids are safe, we'll be fine. We're going to ride it out here."
Nearby, fisherman Rolando Ramirez, 51, was helping others pull their fishing boats from the water in preparation for Wilma's passage.
"People here aren't concerned about anything," said Ramirez. "They don't know that when the hurricane comes, this will all be under water."
At 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT), Wilma's sustained winds fell slightly to 155 mph (250 kph), down from a peak of 175 mph (282 kph) earlier in the day, but forecasters said it could strengthen again.
Wilma was centered 380 kilometers (235 miles) southeast of Mexico's Cozumel Island, and was moving west-northwest at 8 mph (13 kph).
Countries across the region prepared for the worst. Much of Central America was still recovering from Hurricane Stan, which left more than 1,500 people dead or missing. Americans were still mourning 1,200 Gulf Coast victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, reports the AP.
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18