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Wilma threatens Florida with 110-mph winds
Updated: 2005-10-24 08:37

Hurricane Wilma accelerated toward storm-weary Florida on Sunday and grew stronger, threatening residents with 110-mph winds, tornadoes and a surge of seawater that could flood the Keys and the state's southwest coast.

After crawling slowly through the Caribbean for several days, Wilma pulled away from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 2 storm and, forecasters said, began picking up speed "like a rocket" as it headed toward the U.S. mainland. The storm was expected to make landfall around dawn Monday.

The southern half of the state was under a hurricane warning, and an estimated 160,000 residents were told to evacuate, although many in the low-lying Keys island chain decided to stay.

"I cannot emphasize enough to the folks that live in the Florida Keys: A hurricane is coming," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "Perhaps people are saying, 'I'm going to hunker down.' They shouldn't do that. They should evacuate, and there's very little time left to do so."

At 8 p.m., Wilma's winds were just 1 mph shy of Category 3 status. As the storm crossed the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said they saw no evidence of wind shear that they hoped would reduce the hurricane's intensity before it makes landfall in southwest Florida.

A vehicle drives down an already-flooded street near the southernmost point in Key West, Fla. Sunday, Oct. 23, 2005.
A vehicle drives down an already-flooded street near the southernmost point in Key West, Fla. Sunday, Oct. 23, 2005.[AP]
Wilma had battered the Mexican coastline with howling winds and torrential rains before moving back out to sea. At least three people were killed in Mexico, following the deaths of 13 in Jamaica and Haiti.

Forecasters expected flooding from a storm surge of up to 17 feet on Florida's southwest coast and 8 feet in the Keys. Tornadoes were possible in some areas through Monday.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, predicted Wilma would dramatically pick up speed as it approached Florida.

"It's really going to take off like a rocket," he said. "It's going to start moving like 20 mph."

Because the storm was expected to move so swiftly across Florida, residents of Atlantic coast cities such as Miami and Fort Lauderdale were likely to face hurricane-force winds nearly as strong as those on the Gulf Coast, forecasters said.
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