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Hurricane Wilma slows down but remains strong

MIAMI—Hurricane Wilma prowled closer Thursday to a collision with Mexico, edged a bit farther from Florida and slowed down again.

Though it appeared to have little respect for the timetables written every six hours by forecasters, Wilma's core was expected to crash into the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Friday afternoon, then linger there for nearly a full day. It remained a dangerous Category 4 storm Thursday and could regain its top-of-the-scale Category 5 status as it strikes the Yucatan.

That poses a threat of catastrophic damage to the tourist areas of Cancun and Cozumel.

At the same time, experts urged Floridians not to let their guards down, even though the storm kept dawdling and could arrive weakened when it gets around to hitting the Sunshine State.

"It's still coming," said Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center near Miami. "We might as well take advantage of the time. Gas up your cars and get all your supplies ready."

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Bush administration, harshly criticized for its belated response to Katrina, "is actively taking steps to prepare for Hurricane Wilma."

David Paulison, the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said: "We're hoping the hurricane does not hit Florida or anyplace else, but if it does, we're going to be ready for it."

Wilma already has been responsible for 13 deaths in Haiti and Jamaica. At one point Wednesday it became the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.

Resorts in Cancun were deserted Thursday after tens of thousands of tourists fled by plane or were evacuated by Mexican authorities, who took them to inland shelters.

"There were plenty of people who wanted to stay, but we wouldn't let them," said Monica Aldy, a reception clerk at the Hyatt hotel in Cancun. "The only ones left are the employees. Of course we're all scared, but at least we're all in the same boat."

Red alerts continued throughout the Caribbean coast of Central America, still reeling from heavy flooding earlier this month due to Hurricane Stan.

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency reported heavy flooding in Jamaica and said officials in Belize had ordered boats to shore. Some homes were flooded in the Turks and Caicos Islands. More than 220,000 people were evacuated from their homes in Cuba.

After it leaves the Yucatan, Wilma was predicted to turn sharply and strike Florida's southwest coast before dawn Monday, but possibly as a relatively modest Category 1 hurricane.

Nevertheless, damaging wind and heavy rain could reach Florida well before the core. The storm's hurricane winds—of at least 74 mph—extended 85 miles from the center and its tropical storm winds—at least 39 mph—extended 200 miles.

"Believe me, this is still a very powerful hurricane," Mayfield said. "Don't minimize this."

No mandatory evacuations were ordered in Florida's Naples area—yet—but those in harm's way would do well to leave now to avoid the rush, officials said.

"If you can get out now, now would be a good time to do it," said John Torre, a spokesman for Collier County emergency management.

Even though the storm may weaken substantially before it strikes the coast, "A (Category) Two would be serious business for us since we haven't had a direct hit since Hurricane Donna" in 1960, Torre said.

Already, spot shortages of gasoline were reported in the area.

State officials said other spot gas shortages were likely even though more fuel—about 200 million gallons—is in inventory now than during the run-up to some previous storms.

"You don't have to hoard," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said.

About 4,500 National Guard troops will be on standby Friday.

Craig Fugate, Florida's emergency manager, said 225 truckloads of water, 200 truckloads of ice and 60,000 packaged meals already were in distribution centers in Homestead and other areas.

"If we're not handing out water and supplies within 24 hours (of the storm hitting), we regard that as a failure," Fugate said.

Then there's electricity. Or, more to the point, the near-certain absence of it during and after the storm.

"If it's a large storm, I won't be surprised to see millions with no power," Fugate said. "The question will be how long."

If Wilma follows the predicted path, its core will leave Florida around West Palm Beach and move into the Atlantic at about 11 a.m. Monday, probably as a weak Category 1.

Forecasters reminded everyone not to focus on the centerline of the forecast cone of probability. They emphasized that the entire lower half of Florida and the Keys could absorb a direct hit.

Given the slower timetable, however, officials in the Keys delayed the mandatory evacuation of all residents until further notice. Originally scheduled to begin Thursday, the staged evacuation of residents now will start with mobile-home residents and people with special needs at 6 a.m. Friday.

So, in the Keys and in many other parts of Florida, "W" stood not only for Wilma, but also for waiting.

"The attitude is wait-and-see," said Juliette Lysiak, 40, a church secretary in Naples who's lived in Florida for 15 years and seen many hurricanes. "It is slowing down, and lots of things can happen."

As a precaution, the Miami Dolphins-Kansas City Chiefs football game, scheduled for Sunday, was switched to 7 p.m. Friday.

Along the Louisiana coast, survivors of Hurricane Katrina—which was much stronger than Wilma is likely to be when it arrives in Florida—watched Wilma with an uncomfortable sense of familiarity.

Helen Owens, shoveling 6 feet of putrid muck from her house in St. Bernard's Parish, east of New Orleans, offered solemn advice to those in danger zones:

"Take your pictures, take your savings bonds and leave."

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(Merzer, Robles and Long report for The Miami Herald. Merzer and Robles reported from Miami, Long from Vero Beach. Herald staff writers Jennifer Babson in Key West, Frank Davies in Washington and Elinor J. Brecher, Tere Figueras Negrete, David Ovalle and Matthew I. Pinzur in Miami and Travis Tritter of The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News in New Orleans contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WILMA

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051020 Hurricane Wilma

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