Hurricane Wilma Heads Toward the Florida Keys

Six weeks remain in hurricane season, and Nature isn't wasting any time. According to a public advisory from the National Weather Service (NWS) Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., Hurricane Wilma is moving toward the Yucatan as a "potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane." Yesterday (Oct 18), Wilma strengthened to hurricane level while crossing the northwestern Caribbean Sea, which means the 2005 hurricane season now shares the record for the most hurricanes in one season with 1969.

The advisory released this afternoon reported that Wilma had weakened slightly and that the tropical storm warning and hurricane watch for the Cayman Islands had been discontinued. Multiple hurricane warnings, hurricane watches, and tropical storm warnings were in effect for areas of the Yucatan Peninsula.

"On Monday (Oct. 17), Wilma became the season's 21st named storm, tying the seasonal record first set in 1933," a release on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site explained. "Hurricane records date back to 1851. Wilma also is the final name on the 2005 list of storm names. Any additional tropical storms and hurricanes that form this season will be classified by the NOAA National Hurricane Center using the Greek alphabet, beginning with Alpha. Doing so would be a first since the naming of storms began in 1953."

As of 5:05pm EDT on Oct. 19, there were no hurricane or tropical storm watches or warnings in effect for any portion of the Florida Keys, because these watches are issued when "tropical storm or hurricane force winds are expected to begin generally within 36 hours," said the NWS Hurricane Wilma local statement for Key West, Fla.

The center of the hurricane was located about 490 miles south of Key West at the time of the report. "Hurricane Wilma is moving toward the west northwest near 7 mph. A turn to the northwest is expected during the next 24 hours," continued the statement. Maximum sustained winds were near 160 mph with higher gusts, making the storm a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. "Fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next 24 hours. The minimum central pressure was estimated at 892 MB or 26.34 inches of mercury."

At noon today, Florida's Monroe County Emergency Management ordered a mandatory evacuation of all visitors and non-residents of "the Florida Keys of Monroe County, including the Dry Tortugas." County and state parks began closing at that time. Recreational and high-profile vehicles were directed to leave the Keys along with all live-aboard boat residents.

"Residents in the Florida Keys should begin making their hurricane preparations to protect their home and business and be ready to evacuate when ordered by Monroe County Emergency Management," the statement continued. It was expected that residents would be ordered to evacuate on Thursday. Monroe County officials declared a local state of emergency this morning at 8:00am EDT. Government offices in the county will be closed Thursday and Friday.

High-profile vehicles should be able to travel safely through Thursday night. The tropical storm-force winds were expected to reach the Keys as early as Saturday morning, at which time hurricane-force winds will be possible.

Find out more information and updates from the NWS Key West web site at

"Six weeks remain in this year's hurricane season, and although activity in the Atlantic Basin decreases, tropical storms and hurricanes are still possible," said Scott Kiser, Tropical Cyclone Program manager for the NOAA National Weather Service. "NOAA records show that one storm forms in November, on average, once every three years. As many as two storms have formed in November, most recently in 2001."

Horse Industry: Simply Getting Ready

Jeffrey T. Berk, VMD, of Ocala Equine Hospital in Ocala, Fla. (in the north central portion of the state), has experienced many hurricanes in the past and has helped organize an official hurricane response plan for horse owners in the state. "At this point, everyone's waiting to see; there's really nowhere to go," said Berk of horse owners in his area. "In our experience, the unpredictability of these storms when they're coming up south toward us, they could go anywhere.

"We've had people evacuate to places and then get hit by the hurricane because of the lack of predictability," he continued. "People are getting prepared in the normal ways, doing things like lining up back-up electricity in the form of generators."

The Florida horse industry operates on a hurricane plan that was put to the test in 2004, when the state was hit by four different hurricanes. Berk assured, "We have our plan in place, that's always in place, and other than that, no one is evacuating at this time."

Keep watching for updates on the 2005 hurricane season.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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