KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) – A hurricane warning was issued late Saturday for Florida’s entire southern peninsula as residents streamed out of the Keys and coastal communities under mandatory evacuation orders, and state and federal officials prepared for the worst.

The warning, covering hundreds of miles south of Tampa Bay, as well as the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas, means hurricane conditions could be expected within 24 hours.

Saturday night, Wilma was a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds near 100 mph after a slow two days moving along the Mexican coast.

It was centered about 50 miles north of Cancun, Mexico, or about 375 miles west-southwest of Key West, at 11 p.m. EDT, but forecasters expected strong wind currents to quickly steer it toward Florida.

Dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals were already on standby in Florida, and state emergency officials vowed a fast response.

“We will not wait for the winds to stop blowing, we won’t wait for the sky to turn blue,” said Craig Fugate, the state’s emergency management director.

“We’re ready for Wilma and, whatever the storm brings, we’re set to go,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Butch Kinerney.

With hurricane force winds stretching for 170 miles, Wilma could devastate a large swath of Florida, and computer models showed its route could come close to that of 2004’s Hurricane Charley.

If it hits Florida as a Category 2 hurricane, the state’s gulf coast could see a 12- to 14-foot storm surge. If it strengthens to a Category 3, that surge could be 17 feet, forecasters said.

Wilma already has been blamed for 16 deaths in Mexico and Caribbean.

In Florida, its outer bands were already causing problems Saturday, as they dumped more than 5 inches of rain on the Fort Lauderdale area, leaving one area hip-deep in water and forcing people out of at least 50 apartments and houses.

Another 4 to 8 inches of rain was expected in southern Florida through Tuesday, with a foot possible in some areas as Wilma arrives.

“We’ve got two more days before the hurricane. What are we going to do?” asked Belinda Orange, 31, whose Oakland Park home had up to a foot of water.

This has already been a tough year for Florida and the Gulf Coast. With more than month left in the six-month Atlantic season, the annual list of storm names was exhausted with Wilma and forecasters had to turn to the Greek alphabet for the first time in six decades of naming storms, starting Saturday with Tropical Storm Alpha.

Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson said the streets of his island city were mostly quiet Saturday with the entire island chain under an evacuation order.

In southwest Florida, Collier County officials also urged people in coastal areas including Marco Island and parts of Naples to evacuate.

But customers were still sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes in Naples. And while workers installed metal panels over the windows at city hall, residents played tennis across the street at Cambier Park.

“Wilma hasn’t decided what she’s going to do,” said 60-year-old Pat Girard, a New Jersey transplant. “Playing tennis is very much of a stress reliever.”

Associated Press writers Allen Breed in Naples, Mitch Stacy in Punta Gorda, Melissa Trujillo in Oakland Park, and Ron Word and Brent Kallestad in Miami contributed to this story.

On the Net:

National Hurricane Center:

AP-ES-10-22-05 2329EDT

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