Thousands flee as Wilma heads for Florida

HURRICANE WILMA was headed toward Florida late last night and expected to pick up speed “like a rocket”, as thousands of residents had been ordered to evacuate.

The southern half of Florida’s peninsula was under a hurricane warning yesterday in anticipation of Wilma, a Category 2 storm with 100mph sustained wind. Although still far from the state, Wilma’s outer bands of rain had already caused street flooding in South Florida. Tropical storm-force wind was expected to begin lashing the state last night and meteorologists said the heart of the storm was expected to roar across the state today. “The time of preparing is rapidly moving into time of action as people are evacuating,” Florida emergency management director Craig Fugate said.

About 850 people had registered yesterday at a Red Cross shelter in Germain Arena in Fort Myers, with some pitching tents and setting out mats on the still-melting ice where the Florida Everblades minor league hockey team plays.

Wilma had been joined by Tropical Storm Alpha, which formed south on Saturday off the Dominican Republic as the record 22nd named storm for the Atlantic season.

It was the first time forecasters exhausted the regular list of names and had to turn to the Greek alphabet for labels in almost 60 years of naming storms. The previous record of 21 tropical storms and hurricanes had stood since 1933.

Yesterday Wilma had maximum sustained wind near 100 mph. It was centred about 285 miles west-southwest of Key West and was moving toward the northeast at about 8 mph. Hurricane-force wind of at least 74mph extended up to 70 miles out from the centre and wind blowing at tropical storm-force reached outward up to 200 miles, the hurricane centre said.

Hurricane centre director Max Mayfield predicted Wilma would dramatically pick up speed last night and its top wind speed would increase.

“It’s really going to take off like a rocket,” he said. “It’s going to start moving like 200mph.”

About 160,000 people in the state were under mandatory evacuation orders, including the entire population of the Florida Keys island chain, according to officials and Census data.

There was no way of knowing exactly how many actually left, but it appeared only about 20% of the 78,000 Keys residents fled, senior Monroe County emergency management director Billy Wagner said.

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