Residents began fleeing the Florida Keys and parts of the United States mainland today as Hurricane Wilma headed towards Florida.
Its slower-than-expected path has prolonged the anxious wait for a fierce storm that could hit the state on Monday.
The Category 4 hurricane had earlier been expected to strike somewhere on Florida’s west coast this weekend. Its erratic movement frustrated residents already worried about what would be the eighth hurricane to hit or pass near the state since August 2004.
“I certainly wish it would make its mind up. That would help us figure how to make our minds up,” said Dan Buckner, executive director of Charlotte Regional Medical Centre in Punta Gorda.
The hospital, which sustained tens of millions of dollars in damage last year from Hurricane Charley, was discharging as many patients as possible, had reduced elective surgeries and prepared to evacuate patients if needed.
Scattered gas shortages were reported in parts of Florida, but Governor Jeb Bush said the state had a 10-day supply of fuel. Some highways were jammed as people fled the west coast, but police told the governor most of the congestion was from accidents.
“Today’s message is really to prepare and stay aware,” Bush told reporters in Tallahassee. “I understand it can be really frustrating.”
At 2am EDT (0700 BST) today the hurricane’s winds were about 135 mph – down slightly from 140 mph hours earlier – as the storm made landfall on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Wilma was about 450 miles southwest of Florida’s southwest coast and moving north-northwest at about 3 mph and is expected to reach Florida Monday, the hurricane centre said.
Landfall in Florida was not likely until sometime Monday afternoon. Wilma will likely linger over the Yucatan for a few days, which should weaken the hurricane’s top sustained winds to 130 mph or lower.
“That would obviously be terrible news for Mexico, but for the US interests it means that we’ll have a weaker hurricane coming out into the Gulf of Mexico and it will be slower in getting here,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami.
Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, encouraged voluntary evacuations for all residents of the low-lying island chain Friday, and on the Gulf Coast, Collier County ordered mandatory evacuations for Naples and Marco Island.
In the past, many residents in the free-spirited Keys ignored evacuation orders. But on Friday, the streets were nearly empty and plywood covered most windows, a familiar scene because of previous hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina’s death and destruction also made people pay closer attention.
“The economy of life is greater than the economy of substance,” Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson said.
At the Greystone Mobile Home Park near Marco Island a handful of old-timers resisted.
“A state policeman told me to take a permanent marker and write their names on their heads, arms and legs” so their bodies could be identified, said Ellen Guidis, the park’s manager. “And when I tell them that they’re like, ’OK, we’ll go’.”