FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A tropical depression in the western Caribbean was expected to intensify into Tropical Storm Wilma today and pose another hurricane threat to the beleaguered Gulf states by next weekend.

If so, it would be the 21st named storm of an already frenetic 2005 Atlantic hurricane season and tie this year with 1933 as the busiest ever.

Long-range forecasts call for the system to drift west and brush the west end of Cuba, possibly as a major hurricane, on Thursday. It was expected to then churn north into the Gulf of Mexico on Friday.

From there, the projected path aims it toward the Louisiana or Mississippi Gulf Coast, but that remains uncertain because steering currents are weak. It could end up striking anywhere from Mexico’s Yucatan to South Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County.

“The steering currents won’t be better defined until we get to mid-to-late week,” said Hugh Cobb, a center meteorologist. “With weak currents, we don’t expect much in the way of movement.”

On Sunday evening, Tropical Depression No. 24 was about 140 miles southeast of Grand Cayman Island, or about 500 miles south of Miami, creeping west-northwest at 2 mph with sustained winds of 35 mph. It threatened to drench Jamaica and the Cayman Islands with up to 12 inches of rain. A hurricane watch has been posted for the Caymans.

The prospect of Wilma crawling into the Gulf of Mexico is sure to raise high anxiety in a region already devastated by three major hurricanes this year. Dennis struck near Pensacola on July 10; Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Gulfport and Biloxi on Aug. 29, and Rita hit the Texas-Louisiana border on Sept. 24.

Florida residents should monitor Wilma, particularly those in the Keys and on the West Coast. But even those in South Florida shouldn’t let down their guard, said Dave Roberts, a Navy meteorologist assigned to the hurricane center.

“It’s really hard to say at this point whether it’s going to hit Cuba or the Yucatan or where it’s going to go,” he said. “There are still quite a number of questions on what we’re going to see with this thing.”

Wilma is the last name on the 2005 hurricane season storm-name list. That is because the list doesn’t include names that begin with Q, U, X, Y or Z. If more storms develop, they will be named under the Greek alphabet, as in Tropical Storm Alpha.

In 1933, the 21st system didn’t emerge until Nov. 15. The 2005 season still has six weeks left.

Other than the depression, the tropics were relatively quiet on Sunday, with no other disturbances expected to immediately develop.

Experts had predicted this season could see a record number of storms because atmospheric conditions, including abnormally warm waters and low wind shear, are ripe for hurricane development.


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