Residents evacuated, owners boarded up homes and businesses and emergency officials prepared rescue and relief plans as forecasters predicted Hurricane Wilma would pick up speed on a course toward Florida.
The southern half of Florida’s peninsula was under a hurricane warning Sunday in anticipation of Wilma, a Category 2 storm with 100 mph winds. Although still far from the state, Wilma’s outer bands managed to cause street flooding in a South Florida suburb.
About 1,300 people were in shelters on the mainland, a hospital was evacuated, state officials monitored gas supplies and workers assembled truckloads of water, ice and meals for relief efforts planned once the storm makes its expected pass over the state Monday.
“The time of preparing is rapidly moving into time of action as people are evacuating,” Florida emergency management director Craig Fugate said.
On Saturday, Wilma was joined by Tropical Storm Alpha, which formed south off the Dominican Republic as the record 22nd named storm for the Atlantic season. It was the first time forecasters had to turn to the Greek alphabet for names in almost 60 years of naming storms. The previous record of 21 tropical storms and hurricanes had stood since 1933.
By 8 a.m. EDT on Sunday, Wilma had maximum sustained wind near 100 mph. It was centered about 90 miles north-northeast of Cancun, Mexico, or about 315 miles west-southwest of Key West, and was moving toward the northeast at about 8 mph.
Alpha was expected to weaken as it turned north from the Dominican Republic.
Alpha “is not going to be a threat to the United States,” Mayfield said. “I want to make that very clear.”
Hurricane center director Max Mayfield predicted the storm would dramatically pick up speed later Sunday and its top winds would increase.
“It’s really going to take off like a rocket,” he said. “It’s going to start moving like 20 mph.”
The storm was expected to near Florida’s southwest coast as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane early Monday. It could hit near the spot where Hurricane Charley barreled ashore last year, causing major damage in Punta Gorda and other places in southwest Florida.
Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Butch Kinerney said resources ranging from dozens of military helicopters to 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals were standing by.
“We’re ready for Wilma and, whatever the storm brings, we’re set to go,” Kinerney said.
Officials in the island chain of the Florida Keys issued a mandatory evacuation order Saturday, but many people ignored that mandate. Collier County also urged evacuations for coastal areas, such as Marco Island and parts of Naples.
To the north, Wilma’s outer rainbands caused hip-deep flooding in some neighborhoods in the Fort Lauderdale area, forcing people out of at least 50 apartments and houses.
More than 5 inches of rain fell in that area, with flooding mostly contained to the streets in the 2-square mile area, Broward County and National Weather Service officials said.
Gladys Sparrow, a 44-year-old home health care worker, said water that rose to a foot inside her home destroyed clothes and furniture, plus brought in bugs and trash.
“It’s dirty, wet, muggy, everything,” Sparrow said, estimating that 70 percent of her possessions were damaged.
Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West was evacuated of its eight patients on Saturday, with some going to the Florida mainland or as far as Alabama.
Fear and frustration
State and federal officials said they had supplies and personnel outside of the areas expected to get hit. Gas supplies were also adequate, they said.
Four to 8 inches of rain was expected in southern Florida through Tuesday, with up to a foot in some areas. Category 2 hurricanes can be accompanied by storm surge flooding of 12-14 feet. Battering waves could be on top of that.
Southwest Florida residents, some still rebuilding from Charley, made late preparations for Wilma amid fear and frustration.
At a shelter set up in Florida International University in west Miami-Dade, Robert Line, 48, of Key West, waited for the storm with his wife after evacuating the island city some 135 miles south of Miami.
“We’re treating it like a vacation,” Robert Line said before admitting that tensions were running high at the shelter. “Everybody’s stressed out. Everybody’s walking on eggshells.”