MIAMI (AP) – Hurricane Isabel retained its 160 mph winds and its mystery Friday, as forecasters said it was still too early to tell if and where the potentially devastating storm will strike the United States.

At 5 p.m. EDT, Isabel’s maximum wind speeds held steady at 160 mph, making it a Category 5 storm, the strongest. A hurricane hits the top of the scale when its winds reach 156 mph. It was about 350 miles northeast of the northern Leeward Islands in the northeastern Caribbean Sea and was moving west at 9 mph.

The long-range forecast placed it roughly 375 miles east of Cape Canaveral early Wednesday, if it makes a predicted turn to the northwest. But that forecast has a possible error of up to 432 miles, and meteorologists said they would know more about the potential direction of the storm late this weekend.

“It is still too early to even speculate which parts, if any, of (the) eastern coast of the United States may get affected by Isabel,” hurricane forecaster Jack Beven said.

Wind speeds probably will fluctuate over the next five days, but warm ocean temperatures and other conditions have allowed it to intensify consistently, forecasters said.

The approaching hurricane prompted somewhat higher-than-usual sales for items such as plywood, generators, gas cans and chain saws at Home Depot stores in Florida, company spokesman Don Harrison said. Sales of hurricane supplies at the chain’s other East Coast stores were normal, he said.

The last Atlantic hurricane to develop into a Category 5 storm was Mitch in 1998, which moved into the Caribbean Sea and eventually killed about 11,000 and left thousands more missing in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

The last two Category 5 hurricanes to strike the U.S. coast were Andrew in 1992 and Camille in 1969.

Andrew, still the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history with a $30 billion damage toll, tore through south Florida and Louisiana, causing 43 deaths and leaving 180,000 people homeless. Camille killed 143 on the Gulf Coast and 113 in Virginia floods.

Forecasters said Isabel could spawn large ocean swells creating hazardous surf conditions in the Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico over the next few days. At least four cruise ships had changed their planned routes by Friday to avoid getting into Isabel’s path.

The Atlantic hurricane season began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

On the Net:

National Hurricane Center:

AP-ES-09-12-03 1858EDT

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