- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

KEY WEST, Fla. — Heavy rain from Hurricane Wilma’s outer bands battered parts of Florida yesterday as residents streamed out of the Keys under a mandatory evacuation order and forecasters announced a hurricane watch for the state’s entire southern peninsula.

At the same time, a record 22nd tropical storm of the season formed about 125 miles off the Dominican Republic — Tropical Storm Alpha.

Five months into the six-month Atlantic hurricane season, the annual list of storm names has been exhausted, and forecasters had to turn to the Greek alphabet for the first time in six decades of naming storms.

Yesterday in Cancun, Mexico, Wilma had ripped away storefronts and forced residents and tourists trapped in hotels and shelters to scramble to higher floors. At least three persons were killed.

Several dozen people looted at least four convenience stores, carrying out bags of canned tuna, pasta and soda, while others dragged tables, chairs and lamps from a destroyed furniture store. Police were guarding only larger stores, including a downtown Wal-Mart and an appliance store.

Yucatan Gov. Patricio Patron told Formato 21 radio that one person was killed by a falling tree, but he offered no details. And in Playa del Carmen, two persons died from injuries they suffered Friday when a gas tank exploded during the storm, Quintana Roo state officials said.

Wilma, which had weakened to a Category 2 hurricane as it inched northward with sustained winds of 100 mph, was expected to pick up speed today, sideswiping Cuba before it slams into Florida.

Last night, it was slowly moving back over the Caribbean Sea, and rains and winds were beginning to lessen in Cancun at nightfall.

In Key West, one resident who had yet to heed the evacuation order summed up the feelings of many Floridians when he heard about Alpha.

“Oh, lovely, that’s nice,” said John Cline, a guesthouse worker having a drink at Mangoe’s Restaurant on Duval Street in Key West. “Will it ever end?”

As residents boarded up windows and some fled Wilma’s path, state and federal officials prepared for the hurricane, expected to make landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast tomorrow morning. It would be the eighth hurricane to hit or at least brush Florida since August 2004.

A hurricane watch was announced for a large part of the state — about 400 miles along the west coast from Key West to the Tampa Bay area and nearly 400 miles along the east coast from Titusville south.

Dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals were on standby, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Butch Kinerney said.

“We’re ready for Wilma and, whatever the storm brings, we’re set to go,” Mr. Kinerney said.

Four to 8 inches of rain were expected in southern Florida through Tuesday, with as much as a foot in some areas. Category 2 hurricanes can have a 12-to-14-foot storm surge, and a Category 3 could bring 17 feet.

“The people on the west coast are going to have a real problem,” said Stephen Baig, a storm surge specialist at the hurricane center. Forecasters said that with hurricane force winds stretching for 170 miles, Wilma could devastate a large swath of the state.

In the Fort Lauderdale area, dozens of residents already were dealing with hip-deep flooding from Wilma’s outer bands a full two days before the storm was expected to barrel ashore. Five inches of rain overnight forced the evacuation of about 50 houses and apartments.

“We’ve got two more days before the hurricane,” said Belinda Orange, 31, who had about a foot of water in her Oakland Park home. “What are we going to do?”

Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson said the streets of the island city were mostly quiet before the evacuation. It wasn’t clear how many people remained.

“I’m going to wait and see what category it is,” said Andy Arnold, who lives about two blocks from the ocean in Key West. “But at the same time, I’m not going to be stupid.”

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Alpha began forming about 210 miles west-southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and about 125 miles south-southeast of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

A tropical storm warning was in place for Haiti and parts of the Dominican Republic, and a tropical storm watch was in effect for the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas.

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