SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- Hurricane Wilma rapidly strengthened into one of the Americas' most intense storms ever and lashed Caribbean coastlines yesterday, forcing tourists to flee as it threatened to slam into Cancun and southern Florida.
Wilma briefly grew into a monstrous Category 5 storm before weakening to a Category 4 last night. The storm forced thousands of people to evacuate low-lying areas in a 600-mile swath covering Cuba, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Cayman Islands, officials said.
At least 13 deaths have been blamed on Wilma this week, including a man who drowned yesterday while trying to cross a river that overflowed its banks in southern Haiti.
Forecasters said Wilma has the potential to be extremely destructive in a season that has already seen devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With its center still over open water, the storm's sustained winds were near 155 miles per hour last night, down from 175 miles per hour.
Predictions differed on the hurricane's path and how strong it would be if it reaches US shores. Though some weakening was expected, the ''potential for large loss of life is with us," said Max Mayfield, director of the US hurricane center.
''This is one of those cases where we have a tremendous amount of uncertainty," said Mayfield. Referring to Wilma's explosive two-day growth from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane, Mayfield said ''this is one of the most perplexing storms we have had to deal with" this year.
Some models predicted the storm would stay far enough south that it would pose no threat to the United States. There was a lot of ''scatter" in the disparate forecasts, Mayfield said.
The White House, stung by criticism that it had not responded quickly enough to Katrina, promised to stay on top of the situation. ''We are closely monitoring what is an extremely dangerous storm," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. ''People should take this hurricane very seriously."
Tourists packed Cancun's airport in hopes of catching flights out and MTV postponed its Video Music Awards Latin America ceremony, originally scheduled for today at a seaside park south of the resort town.
Heavy rain from Wilma's outer bands also forced evacuations in Honduras, Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti -- even as much of Central America and southern Mexico was still recovering from Hurricane Stan, which left more than 1,500 people dead or missing.
Wilma's confirmed pressure readings early yesterday dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest minimum pressure ever measured in a hurricane in the Americas, but it later lost power and rose to 900 millibars, 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.
With heavy rain, high winds, and rough seas already pounding coastal areas, flood-prone Honduras warned that Wilma posed ''an imminent threat to life and property." The country closed two Caribbean ports.
The head of Haiti's civil protection agency, Maria Alta Jean-Baptiste, said rains associated with Wilma caused floods and landslides that killed at least 11 people.
Wilma is the record-tying 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, the same number reached in 1969.
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