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Record-tying Hurricane Wilma intensifies

Storm nearly Category 3, could head toward Florida

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A satellite image taken at 9:45 p.m. ET Tuesday shows Hurricane Wilma south of Cuba in the Caribbean.

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Hurricane Wilma churned through the western Caribbean with 110-mph winds Tuesday, and forecasters said the record-tying storm could hit Florida by this weekend.

The storm has already left seven to 10 people dead in Haitian mudslides caused by heavy rains, government officials told Reuters news agency.

The latest in a string of devastating storms to sock the Gulf of Mexico region, Wilma became a hurricane earlier in the day -- matching the record for most hurricanes in a season with 12.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said late Tuesday that the rapidly intensifying storm had become nearly a Category 3 hurricane.

Wilma is expected to become a major hurricane -- Category 3 or above, with top winds over 110 mph (177 kph) -- in the next day or two, the hurricane center said.

As of 11 p.m. ET, the center of the storm was 180 miles southwest of Grand Cayman Island and was moving west-northwest at nearly 8 mph. It is expected to take a more northerly turn over the next 24 hours.

The projections for Wilma's path suggest the storm may skirt the western tip of Cuba on Friday, possibly as a Category 4 storm with winds of greater than 130 mph, before curving eastward and barreling toward the southwestern Florida coast.

"All interests in the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula should closely monitor the progress of Wilma," the hurricane center said.

But because of the fluctuating conditions involved in hurricane movement, long-range forecasts often change.

Hurricane-force winds extend outward about 15 miles from the eye, and tropical-storm-force winds stretch up to 140 miles from the center.

Cuba issued a hurricane watch for the provinces of Matanzas westward through Pinar del Rio and for the Isle of Youth, according to the hurricane center.

Mexico issued a hurricane watch for the Yucatan Peninsula from Punta Allen to Cabo Catoche. A watch meaning hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.

A 150-mile stretch of the Honduran coast was under a tropical storm warning, and the Cayman Islands were under a tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch.

As much as 15 inches of rain are possible in the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica, with forecasters predicting 5 to 10 inches in most areas.

So far this season there have been 21 named storms, tying a record set in 1933. If there is another tropical storm, it would be named Alpha, for the first letter in the Greek alphabet.

If that happens, it would be the first time since the naming of storms began in 1953, according to the hurricane center.

Of this year's 12 hurricanes, five have achieved major status.

The only other time 12 hurricanes have been recorded in the Atlantic was in 1969, according to the hurricane center. The most major hurricanes recorded in a year was eight, in 1950.

Hurricane season ends November 30.

CNN's Dave Hennen contributed to this report.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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