- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

MIAMI (AP) — Wilma, the record-tying 21st tropical storm of the season, formed in the Caribbean yesterday, and forecasters warned that it could become a powerful hurricane and hit somewhere along the U.S. Gulf Coast as early as the weekend.

“I think the message is that the season is certainly not over. People in the Gulf Coast are going to have to watch Wilma,” said National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

Wilma reached tropical storm strength before dawn, tying the 21-storm record set in 1933. By today, it could become the season’s 12th hurricane, which would match another record. In 1969, 12 hurricanes were recorded, the highest number since Atlantic record keeping started in 1851.

At 2 p.m. EDT, Wilma had sustained winds of 50 mph, up 10 mph from earlier in the day, and was centered about 235 miles southeast of Grand Cayman. It was drifting southward but was expected to turn toward the west.

A hurricane watch was issued for the Cayman Islands, meaning hurricane conditions could be felt there within 36 hours. Up to 12 inches of rain were forecast in the Caymans, Honduras and Jamaica.

“We’re on alert but we’re not panicking,” said Tootie Eldemire, owner of the Eldemire Guest House on Grand Cayman.

Some computer models had Wilma heading west to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula by Friday, while others showed it curving north into the Gulf of Mexico and northeastward toward Florida late in the weekend. However, such models typically have large errors this far in advance.

“There’s no scenario now that takes it toward Louisiana or Mississippi, but that could change,” Mr. Mayfield said. The Gulf Coast has been battered this year by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Dennis. Hurricane Emily hit Mexico.

The hurricane center said Wilma could strengthen into a major hurricane, with winds exceeding 110 mph.

Mr. Mayfield noted that 10 late-season hurricanes of Category 3 or higher have been recorded since 1995.

Wilma is the last on the list of storm names for 2005. The yearly list has only 21 names because the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are skipped. If any other storms form this season, the Greek alphabet will be used, starting with Alpha.

That has never happened in the roughly 60 years that forecasters have used the system for naming Atlantic storms.

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