FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – South Florida’s fate now rests on Mexico’s misfortune. The longer the storm lumbers over the Yucatan Peninsula, the better the chances that a weakened system will stagger toward the Sunshine State.

Until then, it’s going to be a long, tense weekend waiting for Wilma to arrive sometime Monday. Forecasters urged residents to get ready today for a fierce storm they fear will slash right through the state.

The key now is when and where the hurricane piggybacks on a cold front blowing across the Gulf of Mexico and makes a sharp, right-hand turn for South Florida. With little variation, three computer models used by forecasters have the storm moving on a northeasterly course that enters the state through Naples and exits around West Palm Beach.

“If it stays over the Yucatan for any significant length of time and much of the circulation is over land … that would obviously be terrible news for Mexico, but for the United States’ interests, it means that we’ll have a weaker hurricane coming out into the Gulf of Mexico and it will be slower in getting here,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

On Friday afternoon, the Category 4 storm smashed into Mexico’s resort-filled eastern coastline, pummeling Cozumel island and the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula where thousands of Mexicans and stranded foreign tourists were hunkered down in homes, shelters and hotel ballrooms.

The slow-moving storm is likely to pound Mexico well into Saturday, dumping as much as 40 inches of rain on the Mayan Riviera, before moving back over open water and turning to Florida. Mexican authorities are bracing for devastating floods and already are likening Wilma to Hurricane Katrina’s strike on the American Gulf coast.

Worried that South Floridians could let down their guard, Mayfield and other officials repeatedly stressed Friday that the predicted track carrying Wilma straight through Florida still held. Wilma could be as weak as a tropical storm, or as large as a Category 2 hurricane with 110 mph winds. But Mayfield urged Floridians to take it seriously.

“This is Friday, we’re heading into a weekend and the message is that we really want everybody in the Florida Keys and the southern portions of the Florida peninsula to pay very, very close attention to this,” he said.

“A lot can change between now and then,” he added. “This (delay) is a good thing. It gives us time to prepare.”

There were signs that those warnings were heeded. Collier County launched its mandatory evacuation of Naples and coastal areas Friday while in the Keys authorities urged residents to start leaving voluntarily. Northbound traffic on Interstate 75 leaving the Naples and Fort Myers area early Friday was backed up for at least 10 to 15 miles in one section of the highway. Gas shortages were reported in some areas of southwest Florida, but authorities generally seemed pleased with emergency preparations.

In Punta Gorda, which was crushed by Hurricane Charley last year, workers spent Friday morning boarding up city hall and other downtown homes and buildings. Many dilapidated homes and buildings remain in the area as a reminder of last year’s devastation.

At FEMA City, a complex of nearly 500 trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up last year to help displaced victims, Donald Paterson, 69, said he planned on staying in his trailer home during the storm.

“Someone is going to have to drag me out because I’m staying,” said Paterson, who lost his home and all his personal belongings last year. “The predications were terrible for Charley and look what happened.

“You kind of become a pro after one hurricane,” Paterson said.

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