Hurricane Wilma, the most intense storm to form in the Americas, lashed the coasts of Central America and Caribbean islands today as it lumbered toward Mexico’s Cancun resort and Florida.
It had killed 12 people and forced MTV to cancel a star-studded awards show.
Heavy rains from Wilma’s outer bands forced evacuations in Honduras, Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti.
At 1600 BST the massive Category 5 storm had maximum sustained winds of 175mph. It was centred 325 miles south-east of Mexico’s Cozumel island.
Countries across the region prepared for the worst. Much of Central America and southern Mexico was still recovering from Hurricane Stan, which left more than 1,500 people dead or missing.
The storm was on a curving course that would carry it through the narrow channel between Cuba and Mexico on Friday, possibly within a few miles of Cancun and Cozumel.
Today tourists packed Cancun’s airport, looking for flights home or to other resorts. MTV announced it had postponed its Video Music Awards Latin America ceremony until a still-unspecified date. It was originally scheduled for tomorrow at a seaside park south of Cancun.
The National Hurricane Centre in Miami warned of a “significant threat” to Florida by the weekend from a weakened but still formidable Hurricane Wilma.
With heavy rain, high winds, and rough seas already pounding coastal areas, flood-prone Honduras warned that Wilma posed “an imminent threat to life and property.” The country closed two Caribbean ports.
The closest pieces of land to Wilma’s eye today were the tiny, nearly uninhabited Swan Islands, once used by the CIA for propaganda broadcasts to Cuba.
The head of Haiti’s civil protection agency, Maria Alta Jean-Baptiste, said rains associated with Wilma had caused floods and landslides that killed at least 11 people since Monday.
At least 2,000 families had been forced from flooded homes.
Cuban authorities suspended classes in the threatened western province of Pinar del Rio and prepared to evacuate tourists from campgrounds and low-lying areas, according to Granma, the Communist Party daily.
Heavy rains in the island’s eastern province of Granma forced the evacuations of more than 1,000 people, though some 5,500 residents of Guantanamo, further east, were allowed to return to their homes after the rains there stopped yesterday.
Jamaica, where heavy rains have fallen since Sunday, closed almost all schools and 350 people were living in shelters. One man died Sunday in a rain-swollen river.
A military helicopter plucked 19 people from their rooftops Wednesday in southern St. Catherine parish, where some areas were flooded with up to 7 feet of water, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica’s emergency management office.
“The problem is that with the level of saturation (on the ground), it doesn’t take much more rain for flooding to occur, so we still have to remain very much on alert,” she said.
Prime Minister PJ Patterson ordered the military to make emergency food shipments to stranded residents.
In the Cayman Islands, schools and most businesses were closed as heavy rains fell intermittently. About 1,000 residents of West Bay, 15 miles west of the capital, George Town, were without power.
The storm was expected to dump up to 25 inches of rain in mountainous areas of Cuba through Friday, and up to up to 15 inches in the Caymans and Jamaica through Thursday. Up to 12 inches were possible from Honduras to the Yucatan peninsula, the US weather service said.
In Belize, a nation south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, officials cancelled cruise ship visits and fishermen headed to shore.
Wilma’s confirmed pressure readings early Wednesday dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest minimum pressure ever measured in a hurricane in the Americas, according to the hurricane centre. Lower pressure translates into higher wind speed.
Forecasters said Wilma was stronger than the devastating Labour Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935, the strongest Atlantic hurricane to make landfall on record.
But disruptive high-altitude winds in the Gulf of Mexico should weaken Wilma before landfall, said Hugh Cobb, a meteorologist at the hurricane centre.
The strongest Atlantic storm on record, based on pressure readings, had been Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which registered 888 millibars.
Although the storm was not expected to approach Florida until the weekend, officials ordered visitors to leave the Florida Keys and some residents began buying water, canned food and other emergency supplies. Many said they had been impressed by the devastation from a succession of hurricanes that have ravaged the southern US.
“People have learned their lesson and know better how to prepare. We’re not waiting until the last minute anymore,” said Andrea Yerger, 48, of Port Charlotte, Florida. She was buying material to protect her house, which had to be gutted because of extensive damage from Hurricane Charley last year.
Wilma’s track could take it near Punta Gorda on Florida’s south-western Gulf Coast and other areas hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, in August 2004.
The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since August 2004, causing more than £10billion in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.
Forecasters said Wilma should avoid the central US Gulf coast devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita earlier this year. Those storms killed more than 1,200 people and caused billions of pounds in damage.
Wilma is the record-tying 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, the same number reached in 1969. Records have been kept since 1851.
On Monday, Wilma became the Atlantic hurricane season’s 21st named storm, tying the record set in 1933 and exhausting the list of names for this year.
The six-month hurricane season does not end until November 30. Any new storms would be named with letters from the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.