Hurricane Wilma expected to strengthen as it roars to Mexico

Hurricane Wilma's winds are expected to strengthen as the storm nears Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula today, forcing evacuation of scores of tourists and residents. Florida officials are making emergency preparations for a hit later this week.

Wilma's winds were 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour), down from as high as 175 mph two days ago, according to the National Hurricane Center. The Category 4 storm may become a Category 5 early today, the strongest on the five-step Saffir- Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.

Mexico evacuated residents and tourists from its Caribbean coast, set up shelters and put the army on alert to aid people, said Interior Minister Carlos Abascal. The airport in Cozumel, Mexico, is closed and 970 tourists remain on the island in shelters. In Cancun, 10,000 tourists left and about 12,000 have been relocated to shelters.

The storm is forecast to strike southern Florida on Oct. 23 or Oct. 24, said Lieutenant Dave Roberts, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center. The storm was moving toward the northwest at about 6 mph, the hurricane center said.

"We're pretty well experienced," Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez said in a televised interview. "We've had, in the last 12 months or so, we've had six hurricanes hit the state of Florida. The contacts are there, the coordination is there, and we know who our people are, and I'm satisfied," reports Bloomberg.

Forecasters said late Thursday that the storm was expected to make a direct hit on the vacation isle of Cozumel Friday, then slam Cancun and sideswipe Cuba. Cuba evacuated more than 200,000 people.

"As it hits the Yucatan peninsula, it has the potential to do catastrophic damage," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Forecasters predicted it would swing northeast around Cuba and charge Sunday at hurricane-weary Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, after the state got caught in the westerlies, the strong wind current that generally blows toward the east.

Briefly the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, Wilma was a potentially catastrophic Category 5 storm before weakening. Its 150 mph winds made it more powerful than Hurricane Katrina when it plowed into the Gulf coast of the United States on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,200 people.

Thursday night, Wilma was about 120 miles southeast of Cozumel and about 460 miles southwest of Key West. It was heading northwest toward the Yucatan at near 5 mph with winds at about 150 mph, informs San Diego Union Tribune.