MIAMI – Tourists fled the Florida Keys, residents of Naples and nearby areas sensed the dread already so familiar to other Floridians and people in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties were urged to begin preparing.

And then, a note of uncertainty crept in, and it all began to change. Or did it?

The official forecast still carried Wilma, the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, to South Florida this weekend.

But the timetable slowed considerably Wednesday night and forecasters called it a “low confidence” prediction, acknowledging that they were baffled by dramatic shifts in some of their most consistent and reliable computerized models.

“This is one of the more perplexing storms we’ve dealt with this year,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County.

An example: At 11 a.m. Wednesday, one of the best models predicted that Wilma would be near Maine on Monday. At 5 p.m., the same model predicted that Wilma would be near the western tip of Cuba.

Wherever it ends up, Mayfield said, Wilma remained an extremely dangerous storm, one that required utmost vigilance by everyone from Mexico to Cuba and Florida.

“I know I sound like a broken record, but the potential for large loss of life is with us with Wilma,” he said.

He still plans to finish shuttering his house on Thursday. “Actually, my wife will,” he said. “She gets the credit.”

In the Keys, emergency managers ordered all tourists to leave Wednesday. Staged evacuations of residents are scheduled for Thursday. They’ve been through this before – for Dennis in July and Rita in September. Katrina also came close in August.

“It’s the hurricane of the month club,” said Ann Gardner, 76, of Key West.

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Schools are closed Thursday in the Keys, but open in Miami-Dade and Broward. Broward students already were scheduled to be off Friday because of a teachers’ planning day, but Miami-Dade students are scheduled to attend classes Friday.

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The latest forecast still carried Wilma to the southwest coast of Florida, with the core making landfall as a Category 2 hurricane – possibly near Naples – around 3 a.m. Sunday.

Though good news is in short supply this hurricane season, that scenario qualified. At one point during the day, Wilma was predicted to arrive earlier and stronger – as a major Category 3 storm.

After a swift, seven-hour flight through the peninsula, the hurricane could pass close to West Palm Beach and move over the Atlantic, its core roaming very close to Lake Okeechobee.

Water managers lowered canals throughout the area. Because of the lake’s size – 730 square miles – it isn’t realistic to lower it before a storm, but the lake and its dikes should be able to handle Wilma’s rain and runoff, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In Naples and the rest of Collier County, a voluntary evacuation of tourists was under way. That part of the state has not had a direct hit from a hurricane in 45 years.

Residents lined up for gasoline and made flight reservations to get out of town, but hurricane shutters were nowhere in sight, and tourists still dotted the beaches.

In the Keys, Monroe County officials dispatched a fleet of buses to begin ferrying people with no other way out of the Keys to a shelter at Florida International University’s West Miami-Dade campus.

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State parks were closed, residents and nonresidents in recreational vehicles and high-profile vehicles were told to leave, and tolls on the Card Sound Road bridge were suspended.

Organizers of Key West’s annual Fantasy Fest celebration, which was supposed to begin Friday and last through the following weekend, canceled events through Monday but didn’t scrap the entire affair, which is the city’s biggest annual moneymaker.

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Forecasters still urged all South Floridians to take this hurricane seriously, even though it defied forecasts, was approaching from the west and everyone was weary of the routine.

“I woke up this morning and I said, “Oh no, not again,”‘ said Marsha Hendren, a front desk clerk at the Banyan Resort in Key West.

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Well maybe, maybe not.

One computer model continued predicting a track toward Southwest Florida and over Lake Okeechobee. Another had it striking the Keys and exiting the peninsula around Broward.

Most odd: the model that pointed to Maine at one time Wednesday and then to Cuba.

Developed by the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, it is one of the most reliable and one of the few models that properly predicted Hurricane Katrina’s jog toward Miami-Dade and the Keys in August.

“From Maine to Cuba is a humongous difference in six hours,” Mayfield said.

If the storm remains on course, residents of Broward and Miami-Dade should begin taking precautions Friday, forecasters said, especially if they need long periods of time to prepare their homes or obtain food, water, gasoline and cash.

Some lines formed briefly at South Florida gasoline stations Wednesday, but shopping patterns elsewhere seemed generally normal.

At the Home Depot on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, Patrick Minott pushed a cart of plywood – soon to be storm shutters – toward the checkout register.

“Usually, people wait,” Minott said at midday, observing the few customers around him. “But this one is really going to get us. The path doesn’t look good.”

Near downtown Miami, Byron Johnson, 59, lugged two five-gallon water jugs to a filtered water machine outside the Bay Point Publix.

“Water is the most important thing – there’s always food in the house,” Johnson said.

Gov. Jeb Bush, in Washington to testify to Congress about responses to natural disasters, said the state intended to deliver food and other supplies to affected areas within 24 hours of the storm. Thousands of National Guard troops were available.

“If Wal-Mart can do it, why not the government?” Bush said.

Experts were particularly concerned about storm-surge flooding and high, battering waves in the Keys and along Florida’s lower Gulf Coast. And Wilma’s wind could inflict significant damage.

Through much of Wednesday, Wilma’s wind roared at 175 mph and the storm’s barometric pressure plunged to record, ear-popping levels.

The storm weakened slightly Wednesday afternoon and evening and was expected to fluctuate in intensity. In general, the longer it remains in place in the Caribbean, the weaker it might become because hurricanes tend to cool the water under them.

At the same time, Wilma already provided a textbook example of a phenomenon called “rapid intensification.” Incredibly, it grew from a Category 2 hurricane at 11 p.m. Tuesday into a top-scale Category 5 by 5 a.m. Wednesday.

Around that time, a hurricane hunter plane measured its barometric pressure at 884 millibars, the lowest ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, which includes the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The previous record-holder, Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, had a low-pressure reading of 888 millibars.

Wilma also was stronger than the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that devastated parts of the Florida Keys – a storm with estimated pressure of 892 millibars at landfall.

Told at 9:50 a.m. Wednesday that Wilma’s estimated pressure had dropped again, this time to 882 millibars, hurricane forecaster Stacy Stewart shook his head.

“That sounds wrong,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything like that.”



(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Theresa Bradley, Frank Davies, Amy Driscoll, Tere Figueras Negrete, Steve Harrison, Phil Long, Susannah A. Nesmith, Matthew I. Pinzur, Hannah Sampson, Amy Sherman and Nicole White contributed to this report.)



(c) 2005, The Miami Herald.

Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WILMA

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051019 Hurricane Wilma, 20051019 Hurricane strength

AP-NY-10-19-05 2116EDT


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