CANCUN, Mexico, AP – Much of Mexico”s Yucatan Peninsula was under a hurricane warning Thursday, as Hurricane Wilma swirled off its eastern shore. The storm, already blamed for 13 deaths, slowed down, pushing back predictions of when it might hit Florida.
Tourists were ordered to leave the Florida Keys, and everyone was told to evacuate the island of Isla Mujeres, near Cancun. Authorities were poised to move out thousands of others Thursday from low-lying areas in a 600-mile swath covering Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti and the Cayman Islands.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Wilma had lost some speed.
"Because it is moving slower, we don”t anticipate it making landfall in Florida until sometime on Sunday," a day later than previously forecast, hurricane center meteorologist Jennifer Pralgo said.
Some of the estimated 70,000 tourists still in Cancun and surrounding areas were taking the warnings more seriously than others.
Standing knee-deep in the ocean and drinking beer in Playa de Carmen, south of Cancun, Mike Goepfrich, of Minneapolis, said: "As long as they give me beer in the shelter, and my kids are safe, we”ll be fine. We”re going to ride it out here."
Nearby, fisherman Rolando Ramirez, 51, was helping others pull their fishing boats from the water in preparation for Wilma”s passage.
"People here aren”t concerned about anything," said Ramirez. "They don”t know that when the hurricane comes, this will all be under water."
At 5 a.m. EDT, Wilma had sustained winds of 150 mph, down from a peak of 175 mph, but forecasters said it could strengthen again.
Wilma was centered 195 miles southeast of Mexico”s Cozumel Island, and was moving west-northwest at 8 mph.
Countries across the region prepared for the worst. Much of Central America was still recovering from Hurricane Stan, which left more than 1,500 people dead or missing.
The storm was on a curving course that would carry it through the narrow channel between Cuba and Mexico on Friday, possibly within a few miles of Cancun and Cozumel.
In the coastal state of Quintana Roo — which includes Cancun — officials ordered the evacuation of four low-lying islands, including Isla Mujeres, and also closed the popular cruise ship port on the island of Cozumel.
"This is getting very powerful, very threatening," President Vicente Fox said. Hundreds of schools in Quintana Roo were ordered closed Thursday and Friday, and many will be used as storm shelters.
Predictions differed on where the hurricane would go and how strong it would be when it reaches U.S. shores, where Florida residents began buying water, canned food and other emergency supplies.
Wilma”s track could take it near Punta Gorda on Florida”s southwestern Gulf Coast and other areas hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, in August 2004.
The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since August 2004, causing more than $20 billion in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.
"People have learned their lesson and know better how to prepare. We”re not waiting until the last minute anymore," said Andrea Yerger, 48, of Port Charlotte, Fla.
On Wednesday, tourists packed Cancun”s airport even though skies were still partly sunny, looking for flights home or to other resorts.
Mark Carara cut his family”s vacation short by two days, and tried to get on a standby flight home to Colorado.
"You hear it was the biggest storm on record, and yeah, that was the clincher right there," he said. "It was time for us to go."
Heavy rain, high winds and rough seas pounded coastal areas of Honduras on Wednesday, knocking out power to about 20 towns, cutting off roads to four others and forcing the evacuation of coastal villages and the closure of two Caribbean ports.
Four fishermen were reported missing at sea and about 500 U.S. and European tourists were moved to safe locations at hotels on Honduras” Bay Islands.
The head of Haiti”s civil protection agency, Maria Alta Jean-Baptiste, said that at least 12 people had died in rain and landslides there since Monday. At least 2,000 Haitian families had been forced from flooded homes.
Jamaica, where heavy rains have fallen since Sunday, closed almost all schools and 350 people were living in shelters. One man died Sunday in a rain-swollen river.
The storm was expected to dump up to 25 inches of rain in mountainous areas of Cuba through Friday, and up to up to 15 inches in the Caymans and Jamaica through Thursday.
In Belize, a nation south of Mexico”s Yucatan Peninsula, officials canceled cruise ship visits and tourists were evacuated from keys offshore.
Wilma”s confirmed pressure readings early Wednesday dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest minimum pressure ever measured in a hurricane in the Americas, according to the hurricane center. Lower pressure translates into higher wind speed.
The strongest Atlantic storm on record, based on pressure readings, had been Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which registered 888 millibars.
Wilma is the record-tying 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, the same number reached in 1969. Records have been kept since 1851.
On Monday, Wilma became the Atlantic hurricane season”s 21st named storm, tying the record set in 1933 and exhausting the list of names for this year.
The six-month hurricane season does not end until Nov. 30. Any new storms would be named with letters from the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.