Recharged Hurricane Wilma Lashes Florida

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Keys residents may have been less responsive to evacuation orders in advance of Hurricane Wilma because so many earlier evacuations have been issued for the islands during this record-setting hurricane season.

Also, Wilma had lost much of its intensity as it stalled for two days over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and Keys residents may have dropped their guard.

When the hurricane finally entered the Gulf of Mexico Sunday morning, its strongest winds had declined from about 145 miles an hour (230 kilometers an hour) to about a hundred miles an hour (160 kilometers).

But once the storm again reached the warm waters of the Gulf, it quickly regained strength.

Toner said an earlier report that 20 percent of Keys residents had evacuated was greatly exaggerated. She said the 5 percent evacuation rate was based on a traffic count conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Toner said Monroe County officials are deeply concerned about the welfare of residents living in mobile homes. Because traditional housing in the Keys is extremely expensive, many lower-income residents live in less expensive mobile homes.

But these structures provide little protection from high winds. Toner said the Keys received wind gusts of more than a hundred miles an hour as Hurricane Wilma passed. Winds that strong can cause serious damage to mobile homes, she said.

"Our biggest concern now is that we can't get to them," Toner said in a telephone interview earlier this morning while Wilma's winds still raged. "We know we're going to have a mass-care issue. A lot of people are going to need a lot of help."

Record Strength

A few days ago Hurricane Wilma was the most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Ocean.

The storm began October 15 as a tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea. But Wilma intensified faster than any Atlantic tropical storm on record. By 11 a.m. on October 19, its barometric pressure had dropped to 26.04 inches, or 882 millibars.

A hurricane's barometric pressure is a highly reliable indicator of its intensity. Extremely powerful hurricanes have very low barometric pressure readings. The previous low for an Atlantic hurricane was 26.18 inches, or 888 millibars, recorded in 1988 with Hurricane Gilbert.

Wilma weakened some before making landfall on the Yucatán Peninsula on Friday. But the storm still pounded the resort cities of Cancun and Cozumel with winds of 145 miles an hour (230 kilometers an hour).

The hurricane also stalled over the coastal cities and dumped almost five feet (one and a half meters) of rain before it finally moved back into the Gulf of Mexico.

The prolonged beating inflicted by the hurricane caused massive damage in Mexico.

Forecasters expect Hurricane Wilma to go back to sea by mid-afternoon today and accelerate rapidly to the northeast. The storm is expected to be off the coast of the Carolinas by tomorrow afternoon. But it is not expected to have any serious effects on the East Coast as it churns out to sea.

Wilma also is expected to absorb the remnants of what had been Tropical Storm Alpha, the record-breaking 22nd named storm for the 2005 hurricane season.

All 21 names for the season had been used when Alpha formed. So National Hurricane Center forecasters turned to the Greek alphabet for the latest storm.

The previous record for tropical storms in one season (21) occurred in 1933, and Tropical Storm Alpha broke that record.

The 2005 hurricane season doesn't end until November 30.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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