Evacuations ordered and hurricane watches issued as Wilma threatens Florida | VailDaily.com

Evacuations ordered and hurricane watches issued as Wilma threatens Florida

KEY WEST, Fla. – A full two days before the deadly eye of Wilma was expected to reach Florida’s gulf coast, parts of the state were flooded hip-deep by heavy rain from Wilma’s outer bands and residents were streaming out of the Keys under a mandatory evacuation.The entire southern Florida peninsula – the lower 400 miles of the state – was put under a hurricane watch Saturday, meaning winds of at least 74 mph were possible by Monday morning.Forecasters say there’s good reason to heed the warnings.Computer models indicate a landfall on the southern part of Florida sometime Monday, not far off the path Hurricane Charley took last year.”We can’t be exact of course on where the system is going to go. And it is imperative that people realize that where the exact center goes is important but it is not the entire story,” said hurricane specialist Richard Knabb.With hurricane force winds stretching for 170 miles, Wilma could devastate a large swath of Florida. The storm has already been blamed for 16 deaths in Mexico and Carribean, and at one point last week it briefly became the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.If Wilma hits Florida as a Category 2 hurricane, the gulf coast could see a 12- to 14-foot storm surge. If it strengthens to a Category 3, that surge could be 17 feet, forecasters said.State and federal officials said they had supplies and personnel ready, and adequate gas supplies.”We will not wait for the winds to stop blowing, we won’t wait for the sky to turn blue. We’ll get wet and it’ll be a little dark and a little windy, but the citizens that are impacted know … that Florida is a team,” said Craig Fugate, the state’s emergency management director.Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Butch Kinerney said dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals were on standby.”We’re ready for Wilma and, whatever the storm brings, we’re set to go,” he said.Wilma was already causing problems in parts of Florida Saturday as its outer bands dropped more than 5 inches of rain on the Fort Lauderdale area, leaving one area hip-deep in water and forcing people out of at least 50 apartments and houses.Another 4 to 8 inches of rain was expected in southern Florida through Tuesday, with a foot in some areas as Wilma arrives.”We’ve got two more days before the hurricane. What are we going to do?” asked Belinda Orange, 31, whose Oakland Park home had up to a foot of water.Saturday evening, Wilma was a Category 2 storm with top sustained winds near 100 mph as it moved over Mexico, about 390 miles west-southwest of Key West. It was expected to strengthen as a strong wind currents steer it on a path toward Florida.As residents boarded up windows and some fled ahead of what would be the state’s eight hurricane in two years, the Florida Keys and several coastal communities ordered evacuations, but not everyone was obeying.In southwest Florida, Collier County ordered evacuations of Marco Island and parts of Naples. But while workers installed metal panels over the windows at Naples’ city hall, residents played tennis across the street at Cambier Park.”Wilma hasn’t decided what she’s going to do,” said 60-year-old Pat Girard, a New Jersey transplant. “Playing tennis is very much of a stress reliever.”In the Keys, some residents were waiting as long as possible.A happy, hearty few hit the streets Saturday afternoon for a pub crawl that turned into an impromptu parade of drag queens, pirates, dressed-up-dogs and other costumed revelers.”Frankly, we’re tired of the stress,” said Sir Peter Anderson, who calls himself the secretary general of the Conch Republic, the name the city chose when it tried to secede from the country a few years ago.George Lennox, wearing a knight’s chain mail for protection from debris, pleaded: “Just don’t evacuate the bars.”—Associated Press writers Allen Breed in Naples, Mitch Stacy in Punta Gorda, Melissa Trujillo in Oakland Park, and Ron Word and Brent Kallestad in Miami contributed to this story.—On the Net:National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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