Wilma gains strength in the Caribbean, threatens New Olean

Tropical Storm Wilma formed in the Caribbean on Monday, tying a 72-year-old record for the most storms in an Atlantic hurricane season and strengthening rapidly on a track that could take it into the Gulf of Mexico.

Forecasters said Wilma, the 21st named storm of the year, could be a hurricane by Tuesday. It appeared headed toward the Gulf of Mexico, where residents along the U.S. Gulf coast are still recovering from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Dennis.

Oil markets quivered as Wilma formed in the northwest Caribbean, too close for comfort to the Gulf oil and gas industry, which produces up to 25 percent of U.S. supplies.

At 11 p.m. (0300 Tuesday GMT), Wilma's center was about 250 miles (405 km) east-southeast of Grand Cayman, the largest island in the Cayman Islands, a British colony south of Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. That was about 205 miles (335 km) east-northeast of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaragua-Honduras border.

Wilma was drifting west and was expected to turn west-northwest by Thursday. The hurricane center's official long-range track had Wilma crossing into the Gulf between southwest Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Friday and curving east toward Florida's southern Gulf coast by Saturday, reports Reuters.

According to the AP, a hurricane watch was issued for the Cayman Islands, meaning hurricane conditions could be felt there within 36 hours. The storm was expected to bring 2 to 6 inches of rain in the Caymans, Cuba, Haiti, Honduras and Jamaica, with as much as 12 inches possible in some areas.

"We're on alert but we're not panicking," said Tootie Eldemire, owner of the Eldemire Guest House on Grand Cayman.

Some computer models had Wilma heading west to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula by Friday, while others showed it curving north into the Gulf of Mexico and northeastward toward Florida over the weekend. However, such models typically have large errors this far in advance.

"There's no scenario now that takes it toward Louisiana or Mississippi, but that could change," Mayfield said. The Gulf Coast was already battered this year by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Dennis, and Emily hit Mexico.

The hurricane center said Wilma could strengthen into a major hurricane, with winds over 110 mph.


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