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 » 2006 Forecast  | Saffir-Simpson scale  |  Your stories

Three nations prepare for Wilma

Storm heads for Mexico as Cuba, Florida order evacuations

story.wilma.10.20.1345.accu.jpg
Wilma approches the Yucatan in this satellite image taken Thursday at 1:45 p.m. ET.

SPECIAL REPORT

HURRICANE WILMA

11 p.m. ET Thursday

Position of center: 100 miles (165 kilometers) southeast of Cozumel

Top sustained winds:
150 mph (240 kph)

Latitude: 19.3 north

Longitude:
86.0 west

Source: National Hurricane Center

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Anxious residents in three nations boarded up homes and stocked up on supplies Thursday as Hurricane Wilma closed in on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and threatened to swamp Cuba and Florida this weekend.

A squall line had reached the popular tourist areas of Cozumel and Cancun by nightfall, and conditions were worsening as Wilma drew nearer with winds of 150 mph (240 kph).

The Category 4 storm was expected to strengthen as it nears the Yucatan, possibly regaining Category 5 status Friday, said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. (See video on Wilma's progress -- 2:58)

"This has the potential to do catastrophic damage in that area," Mayfield said.

From the Yucatan, Wilma was expected to travel past Cuba, then turn eastward toward either the Florida Keys or southwest Florida, Mayfield said.

He predicted the storm could reach Florida late Sunday or early Monday.

Stranded in Mexico

As of 11 p.m. ET, Wilma's center was about 100 miles (165 kilometers) southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, and was moving northwest at near 6 mph (9 kph), the hurricane center said.

The center's 11 p.m. update called the storm "extremely dangerous" and said it was becoming better organized. The large storm's eye was projected to be near Cozumel by midday Friday.

But the center said hurricane conditions would be felt well before the center's arrival due to the storm's large size.

Hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph (118 kph) extended outward from the center up to 85 miles (140 kilometers).

A hurricane warning was in effect from San Felipe to Chetumal on the Yucatan, including Cozumel and the nearby islands. A hurricane warning was also in effect for Swan Island.

New Jersey resident Michael Attardi and his father-in-law were among dozens of vacationing Americans stranded Thursday on Cozumel after airlines canceled flights, Attardi said. Ferries also had stopped running, he said.

Attardi said more than 50 other U.S. citizens, including small children, planned to seek haven in hotel bathrooms when Wilma hits. The Americans bought food and water before a 3 p.m. curfew, he said.

Business owner Chris Van de Venter said he would be spending the night in a Cozumel shelter and "riding the storm out."

"The construction in Mexico, unlike the U.S., is all concrete and block, so it's very secure," he told CNN.

In downtown Cancun, business owner Kimberly Howell said she had no plans to leave and was "getting ready for the worst."

"I don't want to leave my dogs alone," she told CNN. "Everyone's just kind of buckling down and waiting."

She said an exodus of tourists began Wednesday, and by Thursday authorities had evacuated and closed off the hotel zone, with schools throughout the rest of town designated as shelters.

Cuban evacuations

In the southwestern Cuban fishing village of Batabano, a low-lying area particularly vulnerable to flooding, residents did what they could to stave off Wilma's wrath. (See video on Cuba's preparedness -- 2:09 )

One man used a piece of rope to secure the roof of his home against oncoming winds.

Cuban authorities were evacuating 500,000 residents from its westernmost provinces.

By Thursday afternoon more than 222,000 residents had been removed from their homes, many of which are falling apart after Hurricanes Dennis and Rita hit Cuba this year.

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

The hurricane center said Cuba could get anywhere from 10 to 20 inches (25 to 51 centimeters) of rain from Wilma, with some areas getting socked with as much as 40 inches.

Storm-weary Florida

Despite some inconsistencies in computer models, Mayfield said, data suggested the storm would turn to the northeast and head toward southwest Florida.

Mayfield said Wilma would likely weaken as it moved "very slowly" over the Yucatan."

Even a Category 2 or a Category 1 hurricane hitting the Florida Keys or the southwest coast of Florida can have big consequences," Mayfield said.

Storm-weary Florida residents were warned to prepare for what would be the seventh hurricane to hit the state in 14 months. (Full story)

"Floridians south of the I-4 [Interstate 4] corridor and in the Keys should prepare for the possibility of a major hurricane," Gov. Jeb Bush said.

The governor declared a state of emergency Wednesday night, hours after the state began evacuating tourists from the Keys and positioning relief supplies and equipment.

Bush said Florida has even set up pet shelters across south Florida to ensure more people leave areas threatened by the storm.

Everyone in the Florida Keys will be under mandatory evacuation orders on Friday. Schools and county offices in the Keys will be closed Friday for a second day.

David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the agency was working closely with state officials.

"By [Friday] afternoon, we will have delivered 150 truckloads of ice, 150 truckloads of water, 30 truckloads of MREs [meals ready to eat]," he said.

"We are ready for the storm as best as we can be," he said.

Paulison took over for Michael Brown, who resigned last month amid accusations that his agency acted too slowly after Katrina hammered Louisiana and Mississippi. The storm killed more than 1,000 people.

Residents of Punta Gorda are hoping that if Wilma strikes Charlotte County, it will not undo repairs undertaken after Hurricane Charley pounded the region in August 2004.

Some Punta Gorda residents said they had no immediate plans to leave.

"Me and my wife, we are very prepared ... and we are planning on staying," Harold Clemens said. "We rode Charley out, and we're not going leave unless things get too bad."

In Collier County, down the coast, emergency officials planned to mandate evacuations for residents of some low-lying areas. Shelters in are scheduled to open at 2 p.m. Saturday.

The Navy evacuated aircraft from Naval Air Station Key West, including 26 F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets and a cargo plane. Base personnel will be evacuated on Friday, the officials said.

Officials postponed Saturday's game in Miami between the University of Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech's Yellow Jackets. Also, the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs Sunday game was moved up to Friday.

CNN's Allan Chernoff and Lucia Newman in Batabano, Cuba, contributed to this report.

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