link:Hurricane Wilma Strengthens, Turns Deadly in Haiti
MIAMI -- Hurricane Wilma triggered mudslides that killed up to 10 people in Haiti as the season's record-tying 21st storm strengthened rapidly Tuesday and headed for the Gulf of Mexico on a path toward storm-weary Florida.
Wilma was expected to strengthen into a powerful Category 4 storm on the five-step scale of hurricane intensity, with winds over 130 mph by the time it crosses from the Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico Friday.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center's long-range forecast track, which has a wide margin of error, had it crossing southern Florida Saturday. The state was hit by four hurricanes last year and has been struck by Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Rita this year.
Wilma was the 21st tropical cyclone of the Atlantic hurricane season, tying the record for most storms set in 1933. It was also the 12th hurricane and tied the record for most hurricanes in a season, set in 1969. The season still has six weeks to run.
Days of steady rain from Wilma caused mudslides that killed at least seven people and as many as 10 in mountainous Haiti, government officials said.
Wilma threatened Honduras and Nicaragua with flooding rain, compounding the woes of Central America. More than 1,000 people in Guatemala and El Salvador were killed by landslides and floods triggered by Hurricane Stan this month.
Wilma was not expected to threaten New Orleans or Mississippi, where Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,200 people and caused more than $30 billion of insured damage in August. Katrina was followed in September by Hurricane Rita.
Wilma was also expected to miss the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas facilities that are still reeling from Katrina and Rita.
But frozen orange juice futures closed at a six-year high Tuesday amid fears Wilma could ravage Florida groves that had just begun to rebound from the hurricanes that destroyed 40 percent of last year's crop.
"We have not really begun harvesting, so much of the crop is still on the trees, which obviously is a concern for growers," said Casey Pace, spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Mutual growers' association.
STORM ALERTS, EVACUATIONS
At 5 p.m.Tuesday, Wilma had top sustained winds near 80 mph , up from 50 mph a day earlier. It was about 180 miles south of Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands, a British colony south of Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Wilma was moving west-northwest at 8 mph and was expected to turn northwest Wednesday. The hurricane center predicted Wilma would skirt western Cuba Friday and curve east toward Florida's southern Gulf coast.
Storm alerts were in effect for the Cayman Islands, parts of Cuba, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and coastal Honduras.
Wilma was expected to deluge the Caymans, Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua, with isolated rainfall amounts of up to 15 inches possible.
Emergency crews in Honduras prepared to evacuate 10,000 people, including tourists drawn to the Bay Islands of Roatan, Utila and Guanaja to scuba dive the pristine coral reefs.
Cuba's western tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Rio braced for heavy rain and flooding. More than 5,000 people were evacuated in eastern Cuba, where two days of rainfall caused floods and mudslides in the provinces of Guantanamo, Santiago and Granma.
The Florida Keys, a chain of islands connected to mainland Florida by a single road, planned to order visitors to leave Thursday and to evacuate 80,000 residents Friday.
"This is our fourth storm but this one is really aggressive. This one we are taking seriously. The damage is going to be substantial," Irene Toner, director of emergency management for the county that encompasses the islands, told local radio.
(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Anthony Boadle in Havana, Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Rene Pastor in New York and Laura Myers in Key West).
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