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Last Updated: Friday, 21 October 2005, 20:54 GMT 21:54 UK
Wilma bamboozles hurricane experts

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Fort Myers, Florida

For a few hours it was the strongest on record, it's bamboozled the weather forecasters, and now Hurricane Wilma is venting its force on Mexico.

Boarded up shop in Florida
Floridians are battening down the hatches

The Category Four storm has been gradually strengthening as it moves over the Yucatan peninsula near Cancun, sending tourists and locals scrambling for flights or for floor space in emergency shelters.

And according to the statistics, Wilma is slowing down and could spend days battering Cancun and the rest of the peninsula, with winds gusting well over 170mph (274km/h).

But meteorologists still don't know exactly where it's going, when, and how strong it'll be when it gets there.

Computer models plot the predicted path hurricanes will take and are often pretty accurate, but Wilma has had the scientists scratching their heads.

The head of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami is Max Mayfield. He's juggling all the figures and sticking his neck out with advisories.


"There has been a lot of discussion and the models have disagreed a great deal," says David Miller from the NHC. "It's definitely one for the record books."

Max Mayfield, National Hurricane Center
There is great speculation among forecasters

It's rare that the models disagree quite so much and it's led to plenty of speculation among well qualified forecasters and bloggers as to what Wilma's going to do.

"The extreme winds will probably cause some of the worst wind damage ever seen in a hurricane," says Jeff Masters on his blog.

"I don't remember ever seeing a National Hurricane Center forecaster going so far against the models," posted Steve Gregory. "Man or machine? I'm siding with the man tonight."

The latest discussion is over how long Wilma will stay on or near land in Mexico.

The longer she is there the more damage she will cause, but the weaker the storm will be by the time it reaches southern Florida, whenever that might be - some say Sunday, others Tuesday.

The uncertainty hasn't stopped the well-prepared and hurricane-aware Floridians from battening down the hatches.

The panic-buying has been going on for a day or two already, with water, fuel and plywood to nail up windows the most popular buys.

A whole stretch of Florida's coast has hurricane warnings and evacuation plans are coming into force.

Governor Jeb Bush has already declared a state of emergency to allow the National Guard to prepare.

It was just a year ago that Hurricane Charley battered this coastline as a Category Four storm, and people remember the damage it caused.

'Running out of names'

Most agree it won't be as bad as that. Wilma could be anything from a Category Three, capable of serious structural damage, to just a tropical storm.

Remember this hurricane has already broken records.

Barometric pressure indicates how intense the storm is, and hurricane hunters - scientists who fly in and out of storms to take measurements - took the lowest ever reading in the Atlantic, making Wilma the most intensive storm ever recorded in that ocean.

The hurricane season has already been a devastating one, and there's still a month or more to go before it's over.

Only once before have 12 hurricanes struck and 21 named storms been recorded.

And while the discussion and debate rages on over Wilma, there are more tropical depressions swirling around in the Atlantic. The meteorologists may well run out of names for them.

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