Hurricane Wilma Most Powerful Yet

Hurricane Wilma has now reached Category 5 status and is the most powerful hurricane of the season.

Wilma Strengthens to Category 5 Hurricane (AP)

Hurricane Wilma strengthened into a Category 5 monster early Wednesday packing 175 mph winds, and forecasters said a key reading of the storm’s pressure showed it to be the most powerful of the year. Wilma was dumping rain on Central America and Mexico, and forecasters warned of a “significant threat” to Florida by the weekend.

The storm’s power multiplied greatly over the last day. It was only Tuesday morning that Wilma grew from a tropical storm into a weak hurricane with 80 mph winds.

Wilma’s pressure readings Wednesday morning indicated that it was the strongest hurricane of the season, said Trisha Wallace, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Wilma had a reading of 892 millibars, the same reading as a devastating unnamed hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935. “We do not know how long it will maintain this Category 5 state,” Wallace said.

Jamaica, Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras were getting heavy rain from the storm, though it wasn’t likely to make landfall in any of those countries, she said. Forecasts showed it would likely turn toward the narrow Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico’s Cancun region — then move into the storm-weary Gulf.

[…]

Wilma already had been blamed for one death in Jamaica as a tropical depression Sunday. It has flooded several low-lying communities and triggered mudslides that blocked roads and damaged several homes, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica’s emergency management office. She said that some 250 people were in shelters throughout the island.

While some Florida residents started preparing by buying water, canned food and other supplies, hurricane shutters hadn’t gone up yet in Punta Gorda, on Florida’s Gulf coast, and no long lines had formed for supplies or gas. Still, Wilma’s track could take it near that city and other Florida areas hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, in August 2004. The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since then, causing more than $20 billion in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.

Kim and I were still in Jamaica Sunday, although this is the first I’ve heard of the death. Aside from the resorts, the country’s infrastructure is simply abysmal, so it doesn’t take much to cause flooding and mudslides, unfortunately. Indeed, the trip from the resort to the airport was exceedingly long, as the already-horrendous roads were washed out. And that was from a couple days of rather light rain.

One hopes this storm weakens considerably while out at sea. Certainly, the Gulf could do without another major hit.

Update: Wilma is now the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Wilma Now Most Intense Atlantic Storm Ever (AP)

Wilma’s top sustained winds reached 175 mph early Wednesday in the most rapid strengthening ever recorded in a hurricane, said meteorologist Hugh Cobb of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. At the same time Tuesday, Wilma was only a tropical storm with winds of 70 mph.

Its confirmed pressure readings Wednesday morning dropped to 882 millibars — the lowest ever measured in a hurricane in the Atlantic basin, according to the hurricane center. The strongest on record based on the lowest pressure reading is Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which dipped to 888 millibars.

Typically, the lower the pressure, the faster the air speeds. But because the pressure around each storm is different, lower pressure doesn’t always correspond to a specific wind speed.

Forecasters said Wilma was more powerful than the devastating September 1935 hurricane that hit the Florida Keys, the strongest Atlantic hurricane to make landfall on record. But Wilma wasn’t expected to keep its record strength for long, as higher disruptive atmospheric winds in the Gulf of Mexico around the hurricane should weaken it before landfall, Cobb said.

What makes a hurricane horrific is the combination of intensity and location. Thankfully, while this storm is more powerful than Katrina, it is unlikely to do anything near the damage of that storm because it will peter out by the time it hits a significant populated area. Katrina hit perhaps the most vulnerable spot in the United States at nearly the height of its intensity; Wilma will likely do neither.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DL says:

    See. This is what we get for betraying George Bush! He’s steering the storm again, I’ll bet.