FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Hurricane Wilma’s threat to Florida has eased ever so slightly because the system is expected to weaken after making landfall today on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Under the current forecast, Florida’s west coast on Sunday faces anywhere from a strong Category 2 storm with 110 mph winds to a minimal Category 1 with winds of 75 mph. Earlier forecasts called for a dangerous Category 4.

The news could be even better for South Florida, which could see a Category 1 hurricane or possibly even a tropical storm.

“It all depends on how long it just sits there on the Yucatan,” said Eric Blake, meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center. “It makes all the difference in the world for South Florida.”

Wilma was forecast to strike near Cozumel, Mexico, at about noon today as a catastrophic Category 5 storm with 165 mph winds and spend about 18 hours on the Yucatan before emerging in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday.

From there, the storm was projected to make landfall near Naples, Fla., on Sunday afternoon, diagonal northeast across the state and arrive in the Atlantic between West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce on Monday afternoon.

That is about a day later than previously forecast because the system has slowed its trek across the Caribbean.

Still, forecasters are warning Florida residents to complete preparations by Saturday because intensity forecasts can contain large errors – and Wilma still could strike South Florida as a Category 2 or Category 3 system.

“People just need to keep their eye on this and be ready to take action,” said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center.

Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency on Thursday in advance of the storm, giving state officials broad authority to activate the National Guard, mandate evacuations and distribute recovery supplies.

In the Keys, officials changed the mandatory evacuation from Thursday to today, while in South Florida, emergency managers were monitoring the storm to determine whether to call for a coastal evacuation.

While Florida was bracing for a possibly reduced storm, Mexico was facing a disaster, Mayfield said.

Wilma “has the potential to do catastrophic damage to that area,” he said. “This is going to be a big deal for Mexico.”

On Thursday evening, Category 4 Wilma was 135 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, crawling northwest at 6 mph with sustained winds of 150 mph.

Mayfield said after Wilma leaves the Yucatan, it should regain some strength as it moves across the warm Gulf waters.

However, “the longer it stays in the Yucatan, the more it would weaken, and that would be a good thing. The upper level environment should become much less favorable for further intensification,” he said.

Forecasters say they can’t pinpoint when or where Wilma might approach South Florida because computer-forecast models have divergent projections, said hurricane specialist James Franklin.

“We’re not real confident with this forecast,” he said.

Another factor that could weaken Wilma is a cold front coming from the country’s midsection. Where the cold front and Wilma meet could determine where the storm strikes – anywhere from Central Florida to the Keys, forecasters said.

“I think it will have to commence that northeast motion before we know anything,” Mayfield said.

Because Wilma continues to grow in size, Mayfield urged Floridians not to focus on the forecast track but rather the cone of uncertainty, which now includes the entire Florida peninsula.

Officials at South Florida’s major airports said flights are quickly filling up as many residents are trying to fly out of town before the storm arrives.

At Palm Beach International, travelers were asked to arrive at least two hours prior to departure because they could run into long lines, said airport spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda.

“We believe travelers have adjusted their plans and may be trying to leave a little earlier,” she said.

With the evacuation order in place, Key West was quiet on Thursday. But not everyone planned to leave.

“I’m just going to play a wait and see game,” said Scott Synar as he filled up his car at an Amoco gas station. “Why jump out of the pan and into the fire?”

Others were taking no chances.

“These days, the storms seem to be more frequent and more severe,” said Stuart Weisfeld, who usually rides out hurricanes. “I have no idea where the storm is going to go, but I’m taking precautions and leaving.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.