Wilma gathers strength south of Cayman Islands

The outer edge of Tropical Storm Wilma, the record-tying 21st named system of the season, neared the Cayman Islands on Monday, but the skies were mostly clear and rough weather wasn't expected until after nightfall.

Schools and businesses were open but authorities urged people to be alert as the storm moved closer to the island chain, which was badly damaged in Hurricane Ivan last year.

In Jamaica, bursts of heavy rainfall from Wilma's outer bands flooded several low-lying communities, blocked roads with mud and forced 100 people into shelters, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica's emergency office.

A 35-year-old farmer drowned Sunday in central Jamaica after he was swept away by a rain-swollen river while trying to retrieve some goats who had gotten too close the banks, police Constable Keisha Scott said.

Forecasters predicted the storm would move to within 70 miles of Grand Cayman, the largest island, on Tuesday afternoon _ at which point it could be a minimal Category 1 hurricane. At 2 p.m. (1800 GMT), Wilma had top sustained winds near 50 mph (80 kph). It was centered about 235 miles (380 kilometers) southeast of Grand Cayman and about 225 miles (365 kilometers) east-northeast of the Nicaragua-Honduras border.

A hurricane watch was posted for the Caymans while Honduras posted a tropical storm warning. Wilma is the 21st named storm of the season, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. The only other time that as many storms formed since record keeping began 154 years ago was in 1933.

The storm was expected to bring heavy rain in the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, with as much as 12 inches (30 centimeters) possible in some areas, forecasters said. Tootie Eldemire, owner of the Eldemire Guest House on Grand Cayman, said she stocked up on water, candles, flashlights and canned goods for her guests but said she wasn't worried about the storm.

Many islanders still had storm shutters up from last year's Hurricane Ivan, which destroyed 70 percent of buildings on Grand Cayman, the largest island in the three-island British territory of 45,000 people. Boat owners pulled their vessels into canals and tied them up to prevent them from being tossed by heavy surf and wind.

Long-term forecasts show the storm heading into the Gulf of Mexico by the weekend. Forecasters said high water temperatures and other conditions were favorable for it to become a significant hurricane.

U.S. hurricane center specialist Stacy Stewart said Wilma had shifted west of its previous path and could hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. But Wilma is then expected to re-emerge into the Gulf and could become a threat to the southern U.S. The Atlantic hurricane season ends Nov. 30, AP reports.

A. A.

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