Wilma set to become major hurricane as it steams through Caribbean toward Cuba, Florida

Wilma, the record-tying 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, appeared set to become a major Category 4 storm as it steamed along a track that would take it past Central America, Cancun, Cuba and eventually into Florida.

"It would not be a surprise to see it reach category five before it bottoms out," the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida reported.

However, Wilma could weaken again due to internal factors and sea temperatures before hitting Florida's Gulf coast as expected later in the week.

High seas, rain and winds from Wilma, currently a Category 2 hurricane with 110-mph (175 kph) winds, forced Honduras to close two seaports on its Caribbean coast. A small fishing boat capsized in a coastal lagoon, but Honduran authorities rescued its occupants.

With heavy rain already falling in coastal areas, flood-prone Honduras warned that Wilma posed "an imminent threat to life and property." Neighboring Nicaragua also declared an alert. Central America is just recovering from Hurricane Stan, which killed at least 796 people, most in Guatemala.

Cuba issued a hurricane watch for the western end of the island from Matanzas to Pinar del Rio, as well as the Isle of Youth. Mexico issued a hurricane watch for nearly all of its Caribbean coast from Punta Gruesa to Cabo Catoche, an area that includes the resort of Cancun.

Wilma already had been blamed for one death in Jamaica as a tropical depression on Sunday and it pounded the island for a third day Tuesday, flooding several low-lying communities and triggering mudslides that blocked roads and damaged several homes, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica's emergency management office. She said that some 250 people were in shelters throughout the island.

By 11:00 pm EDT (0300 GM) Tuesday, Wilma was moving west-northwest at 8 mph (13 kph), with a more northerly turn expected soon.

Wilma was centered about 290 kilometers (180 miles) southwest of Grand Cayman Island, and about 140 miles (225 kms) northeast of Cape Gracias a Dios on the Honduras-Nicaragua border.

The Hurricane Center reported that "central pressure is falling rapidly," with Wilma expected to become a category four hurricane with winds of as much as 137 mph (220 kph) by Wednesday or Thursday.

Early projections show the storm was likely to rake Honduras and the Cayman Islands before it turns toward the narrow Yucatan Channel between western Cuba and the Cancun region of Mexico. It was then aimed at Florida.

"It does look like it poses a significant threat to Florida by the weekend. Of course, these are four- and five-day forecasts, so things can change," said Dan Brown, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Center.

While some Florida residents started buying water, canned food and other supplies, hurricane shutters hadn't gone up yet in Punta Gorda, in southwestern Florida, and no long lines had formed for supplies or gas.

Still, Wilma's track could take it near that city and other Florida areas hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, in August 2004; forecasters urged Florida residents to closely monitor Wilma.

The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since August 2004, causing more than $20 billion in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.

In the Cayman Islands, authorities urged businesses to close early Tuesday to give employees time to prepare for the storm. Schools were ordered to close on Wednesday.

In Mexico, the MTV Latin America Video Music Awards ceremony, originally scheduled to be held Thursday at a seaside park south of Cancun, was moved up one day to avoid possible effects from Wilma.

Honduras and its neighbors already are recovering from flooding and mudslides caused by earlier storms. Officials say Hurricane Stan killed at least 796 people, most of them in Guatemala.

But forecasters said Wilma should avoid the central U.S. Gulf coast devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita earlier this year.

"There's no scenario now that takes it toward Louisiana or Mississippi, but that could change," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.

The six-month hurricane season doesn't end until Nov. 30, but Wilma exhausts the list of storm names for 2005. Any new storms would be named with letters from the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.

Since record-keeping began in 1851, only once before _ in 1969 _ did 12 hurricanes form. Wilma also ties the record as the season's 21st named storm, AP reported. V.A.

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