Source Pravda.Ru

Category 3 storm Wilma might become disaster as it speeds up towards U.S.

Rain pounded Key West as Hurricane Wilma accelerated toward storm-weary Florida, threatening residents with 115-mph (185-kph) winds, tornadoes and a surge of seawater that could flood the Keys and the state's southwest coast. After moving slowly through the Caribbean and along the Mexico coast, Wilma picked up speed and strength Sunday, shooting toward the U.S. mainland as a Category 3 storm.

It was expected to make landfall before dawn Monday in the state's southwest corner. The core of the hurricane was forecast to slice across Florida, speeding northeast at up to 25 mph (40 kph).

The southern half of Florida was under a hurricane warning, and an estimated 160,000 residents were told to evacuate, although many in the low-lying Keys island chain stayed. At least three tornadoes were confirmed in the state, near Fort Drum, Kenansville and Cocoa Beach, and a large waterspout was spotted off Key West.

"I cannot emphasize enough to the folks that live in the Florida Keys: A hurricane is coming," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "Perhaps people are saying, 'I'm going to hunker down.' They shouldn't do that. They should evacuate, and there's very little time left to do so."

Forecasters warned of flooding from a storm surge of up to 17 feet (5.1 meters) on the southwest coast and 8 feet (2.4 meters) in the Keys, where streets were already running with water Sunday night.

Because the storm was expected to move so swiftly across Florida, residents of Atlantic coast cities were also likely to face hurricane-force winds nearly as strong as those on the Gulf Coast, forecasters said.

Despite the repeated warnings, fewer than 10 percent of the Keys' 78,000 residents evacuated, Monroe County Sheriff Richard Roth said.

"I'm disappointed, but I understand it," Roth said. "They're tired of leaving because of the limited damage they sustained during the last three hurricanes."

Wilma is Florida's eighth hurricane since August 2004 and the fourth evacuation of the Keys this year.

It has already proved its damaging potential, battering the Mexican coastline with howling winds and torrential rains and killing at least three people there. Thirteen others died in Jamaica and Haiti, and four bodies were found off Cozumel, though it wasn't clear if they were killed by the storm, the AP says.

In Cuba, Wilma drenched the west of the island with heavy rains and flooded already evacuated communities along the islands's southern coast. Cuban authorities reported Sunday that the ocean had penetrated up to half a mile (one kilometer) in some southern coastal communities. The Cuban government had evacuated more than 625,000 people, mostly in the island's west.

Rainfall of up to 15 inches (38 centimeters) was possible in some parts of western Cuba, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

President Fidel Castro appeared on a television program to calm Cubans. Cuban authorities were especially worried about coastal flooding across the northern coast of the island's western provinces of Pinar del Rio and Havana starting late Sunday and continuing into Monday.

By Sunday evening, the hurricane's outer bands were lashing coastal Florida areas in Wilma's path.

T.E.