Hurricane Wilma became the most intense hurricane in Atlantic hurricane history on Wednesday, registering the lowest barometric pressure on record. Though it lost some strength overnight as it approached Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and has been downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane, Wilma is still extremely dangerous, officials said Thursday.
Forecasters expect Wilma to regain its force as it shifts northwest toward Florida, and they think the storm could strike the state with devastating force by Sunday. State officials have declared a state of emergency and ordered visitors out of the Florida Keys.
Dozens of weather Web sites, news sites and blogs are offering detailed updates on Wilma's advance. For weather geeks, a number of sites offer loads of meteorological detail, including The Weather Underground and The Storm Track, run by a meteorologist at Yale University. The Weather Underground was co-founded by meteorologist Jeff Masters, who is also offering frequent reports on Wilma in his weather blog.
In a recent post, Masters said the eye of the hurricane is re-forming, a process that has only temporarily weakened it. "As Wilma's eye re-forms at a much larger size, the hurricane should begin to intensify again, and a return to Category 5 strength by Friday afternoon is a possibility," he wrote in his blog early Thursday.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center, the official source of information on Wilma, gave a similar report on Thursday morning. But the agency added that Wilma is expected to spend more time in the Yucatan than previously predicted, resulting in a "significantly weaker storm" when it approaches Florida.
Wilma was packing 125 mph winds about 140 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, on Thursday, according to the NHC.
Another official site offering a fascinating view of Wilma is NASA's, which has posted images of the hurricane captured from video cameras aboard the international space station. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, offers updates of satellite images every half hour.
Thanks to storm-probing jets and advances in computer modeling, hurricane forecasting is much more accurate than it was 10 or 20 years ago, according to the Weather Underground's Masters. Meteorologists can predict the path of a storm with great accuracy, he said, but predicting hurricane intensity has been more difficult.
"A lot of it is just our fundamental understanding of these storms," Masters said. "If we had a better understating of how these storms work, how they intensify, we'd be able to make better computer forecasts."
Florida newspapers are revving up their online Wilma coverage too. The Miami Herald has a hurricane preparation guide and maps, but visitors must register to read news reports.
"Sorry to disappoint you doom and gloomers, but Wilma has clearly peaked and has nowhere to go but down from here," an armchair forecaster named Mark wrote on the message board.
"I am not panicking over this hurricane, but I am making plans to leave if the track shifts north. This is a very, very serious storm," wrote one anonymous commentator on the St. Petersburg Times blog.
Wilma has already claimed about a dozen lives in Haiti and Jamaica after heavy rains triggered landslides there and forced hundreds from their homes.
Wilma is the third Category 5 hurricane this year. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,250 people when it struck in August, and Hurricane Rita is responsible for nine deaths in the region.