Monday, October 24, 2005

Rain Pounds Key West As Wilma Nears Fla.

KEY WEST, Fla. - Hurricane Wilma accelerated Sunday toward Florida and got stronger along the way, threatening the storm-beleaguered state with 115-mph winds and raising concerns about thousands of Keys residents who defied mandatory evacuation orders.

Forecasters said Wilma could intensify as it approached Florida, and they were correct: The storm regained Category 3 status Sunday evening, in large part because the system hadn't been affected by wind shear officials hoped would impede Wilma's path and reduce its intensity.

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Landfall was expected by daybreak, probably near the state's southwest corner. Yet with the strongest winds on the storm's right side, officials feared a strong storm surge could cause widespread problems in the Keys.

"They're going to be in deep trouble," warned Billy Wagner, the senior Monroe County emergency management director.

Wilma's outer bands of gusty winds and rain began lashing the Keys and southwest Florida on Sunday night. At least three tornadoes were reported in the southern half of the state, including one not far from the
Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. And 31 counties — covering more than half the state's population — were under a tornado watch that extended through Monday morning.

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