As Hurricane Wilma roars through the Caribbean, scores of tourists and residents today began evacuating low-lying coastal areas in south Florida by Sunday. After briefly becoming the most intense Atlantic storm ever observed, with top sustained winds of 175 miles per hour on Wednesday morning, Wilma's winds eased to 145 m.p.h. by 7 a.m. this morning, the National Hurricane Center said on its website.
Wilma is still a Category 4 storm on the five-step hurricane ranking and the center warned that it would probably strengthen again over the next 24 hours.
"All interests in the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula should closely monitor the progress of extremely dangerous Hurricane Wilma," the center said in its online advisory this morning. "Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion."
Tourists were asked to leave the Florida Keys as emergency and rescue teams prepared for the storm and the Federal Emergency management Agency said in a statement that it has begun placing water, ice and tents in areas where Wilma was forecast to strike.
Meanwhile, large swathes of the Yucбtan Peninsula in Mexico were subject to a hurricane warning today and everyone on the island of Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun, was told to leave, The Associated Press reported. A tropical storm warning remained in place for parts of Cuba, Belize and Honduras as local authorities prepared to evacuate thousands of inhabitants from endangered areas, the news agency said, reports the New York Times.
In an advisory at 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT), the National Hurricane Center said the center of the storm was located about 195 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico.
Wilma is still moving west-northwest at nearly eight miles per hour, with some wobbles of the eye during the past few hours. The NHC expects the storm to turn toward northwest later today.
Its maximum sustained winds decreased to near 150 mph with higher gusts, making Wilma a Category 4 (winds 131-155 mph) hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. The NHC expects some restrengthening during the next 24 hours.
The NHC expects the storm to weaken into a Category 2 (winds 96-110 mph) or Category 3 (winds 111-130 mph) storm before hitting the Florida coast.
The NHC will issue an intermediate advisory at 8 a.m. followed by the next complete advisory at 11 a.m. Position: Lat. 18.3 degrees North, informs Reuters.