Sigh...Wilma strongest hurricane on record

MIAMI (AFP) - Hurricane Wilma, which swelled into an "extremely dangerous" Category 5 storm, threatening Mexico and the Caribbean, is the strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic.

The hurricane's barometric pressure, 882 millibars, was "the lowest pressure on record for a hurricane in the Atlantic basin," the US National Hurricane Center said Wednesday -- and the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.

At 1200 GMT, winds at the center of the storm were clocked at 280 kilometers (175 miles) per hour.

The hurricane was located some 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, and was slowly whipping west-northwest toward Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, but it was expected to turn toward the northwest within 24 hours.

"Wilma is a potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane," the center said after noting that the hurricane -- a record-matching 21st storm of the year in the Atlantic -- had strengthened to the highest level on the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

The center added, however, that "despite the favorable large-scale environment, ... Wilma is near its maximum potential intensity, and further strengthening is not anticipated."

Wilma is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico, then veer northeast toward Florida.

"All interests in the Florida Keys (the southernmost US islands) and the Florida Peninsula should closely monitor the progress of extremely dangerous Hurricane Wilma," the hurricane center said.

World oil prices dropped amid hopes that Wilma would not hit oil installations on the storm-weary US Gulf Coast.

Authorities in Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua and the Cayman Islands have all issued hurricane alerts.

Cuba has ordered 5,000 people evacuated from flood-prone areas along the storm's path, and Mexico has placed tourist areas along the Yucatan on alert.

Honduras also ordered preparations for evacuations as heavy rain began to fall. Widespread flooding was reported in Jamaica from rainfall sparked by the hurricane, and nearly 25 inches (64 centimeters) of rain was expected to drench mountainous areas of Cuba through Friday.

Meanwhile, organizers of the MTV Video Music Awards Latin America brought their annual ceremony, to be held in the Mexican resort of Cancun, forward a day, to Wednesday, because of the storm.

Wilma is the 12th full-blown hurricane of the Atlantic season, and a series of the storms have left thousands dead in Central America and along the US Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Katrina, which was at Category 4 when it made landfall on August 29, killed more than 1,200 people in the United States, and Hurricane Stan left more than 2,000 dead in Guatemala alone earlier this month. Dozens more were killed by the storm in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico.

Florida has already been battered by hurricanes Dennis and Katrina this year, and the state's governor, Jeb Bush, brother of US President George W. Bush, was downcast at the prospect of a fresh hit.

"Why us?" he said. "How does a storm take a sharp 90-degree turn?"

A climate study released Monday said the continental United States will face more extreme temperatures during the next century and more intense rainfall along the Gulf Coast.

The study, published by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, warned that greenhouse gases will likely swell to twice their current levels by the end of the century.

It predicted that the southwestern United States could endure as much as a 500 percent increase in hot events, leaving less water for the growing population; that the Gulf Coast region would receive more rainfall over shorter periods of time; and that summers in the northeast would be shorter and hotter.

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