PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -Visitors were ordered out of the Florida Keys on Wednesday as Hurricane Wilma briefly exploded into the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, with meteorologists warning that it could maintain devastating power as it crosses Florida from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic.
The storm, which was menacing Cuba and Central America, could be a weakened but still significant threat to the state by this weekend, forecasters said. Its sustained wind blew at 165 mph Wednesday afternoon, down from 175 mph earlier in the day.
Wilma was expected to come ashore in southwestern Florida, threatening coastal areas like Punta Gorda that were battered by Charley, the Category 4 storm that was the first of seven hurricanes to strike or pass close to the state since August 2004.
Monroe County officials ordered visitors out of the Florida Keys. Tourists are generally told to leave ahead of others on the lengthy chain of islands connected by one highway.
On the state's southwest coast, Collier County officials hadn't ordered anyone to leave the Naples area, but "we are telling those folks who are more comfortable evacuating to go ahead. If they wait there could be road congestion and other problems," said Jaime Sarbagh, a county emergency management spokeswoman.
Early Tuesday, Wilma was only a tropical storm with wind of 70 mph. With wind more than 100 mph faster by the same time Wednesday, it had shown the most rapid strengthening ever recorded in a hurricane, said Hugh Cobb, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
By afternoon, Wilma was being disrupted by upper atmosphere wind in the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said. As the storm moves north into the gulf, it will encounter water temperatures that are 1 or 2 degrees lower than those in the Caribbean, which should inhibit its strength more, Cobb said.
Still, it's forecast to be a potentially devastating Category 3 or 4 hurricane when it makes landfall in Florida, although experts acknowledge they have little skill in making strength forecasts. A Category 3 storm has wind of at least 111 mph, a Category 4 has wind of 131 to 155 mph, and a Category 5 is anything above that.
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, Wilma was still in the western Caribbean, about 520 miles south of Key West and wobbling toward the west-northwest at 7 mph. However, the storm should eventually make a sharp right turn toward Florida and pick up forward speed in the Gulf of Mexico because it will get caught in the westerlies, the strong wind current that generally blows toward the east, forecasters said.
The White House promised to remain on top of the situation. "We are closely monitoring what is an extremely dangerous storm," said Scott McClellan, spokesman for President Bush. "People should take this hurricane very seriously."
Wilma was expected to move across Florida rapidly, which means it wouldn't weaken much over land, Cobb said. That makes it possible that Atlantic coast cities such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach could be hit by wind nearly as strong as on the west coast, he said.
Paul Malbon anxiously watched Wilma's progress from the five-story Best Western waterfront hotel he owns and runs in Fort Myers Beach, on the west coast south of Punta Gorda. Hurricane Charley's storm surge shoved sand and water into the ground floor last year but everything was quickly repaired.
"I don't wish bad luck on anybody else but I hope it doesn't come here," he said Wednesday.
Asked if he feared the area might get slammed again, he replied: "Only the man upstairs knows the answer to that one. It don't look good at the moment."
Charley was the first of six hurricanes to strike the state since August 2004, causing more than $20 billion and killing nearly 150 people.
The state routinely replenishes emergency supplies of water, food and ice at staging points so no additional action is needed, emergency management spokesman Mike Stone said earlier. Supermarkets and home-repair chains stocked extra food, ice and other supplies.
Many Punta Gorda homes and businesses have been rebuilt in a construction boom, but some are still boarded up. More than 6,800 federal trailers and mobile homes remain scattered around the state as temporary housing installed after the six storms, with 934 in Charlotte County alone.
Wilma made history before hitting land. It is the 12th hurricane of the season, the same number reached in 1969, the highest since record-keeping began in 1851. It is also the 21st named storm, tying the record set in 1933.
The six-month hurricane season ends Nov. 30. Wilma is the last on the 21-name list for storms this year. If any other storms form, letters from the Greek alphabet would be used for the first time, starting with Alpha.