BRITISH tourists in Florida could face evacuation this weekend after Hurricane Wilma swelled into a dangerous Category 5 storm and became the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.
The US National Hurricane Centre said the storm's barometric pressure was the worst on record in the Atlantic basin, with winds near 175mph and heavy rains which threaten Cuba, Mexico and the Cayman Islands.
At least 11 people in have been killed in Haiti by floods and landslides associated with Wilma.
Forecasters say the hurricane presents a "significant threat" to Florida, which it is expected to hit this weekend. Officials in the vulnerable Florida Keys island chain have ordered visitors and non-residents to leave.
In Mexico, tourists yesterday packed Cancun's airport, looking for flights home or to other resorts and MTV announced it had postponed its Video Music Awards' Latin America ceremony.
The closest pieces of land to Wilma's eye last night were the tiny, nearly uninhabited Swan Islands, once used by the CIA for propaganda broadcasts to Cuba.
The head of Haiti's civil protection agency, Maria Alta Jean-Baptiste, said at least 2,000 families had been forced from flooded homes.
Cuban authorities suspended classes in the threatened western province of Pinar del Rio and prepared to evacuate tourists from camping areas and low-lying land, according to Granma, the Communist Party daily.
Jamaica, where heavy rains have fallen since Sunday, closed almost all schools and 350 people were living in shelters while one man died in a rain-swollen river. A military helicopter plucked 19 people from their rooftops on Wednesday in southern St Catherine parish, where some areas were flooded with up to seven feet of water, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica's emergency management office.
"The problem is that with the level of saturation [on the ground], it doesn't take much more rain for flooding to occur, so we still have to remain very much on alert," she said.
The storm is expected to dump up to 25 inches of rain on mountainous areas of Cuba tomorrow and up to 15 inches in the Caymans and Jamaica today. Up to 12 inches were possible from Honduras to the Yucatan peninsula, the US weather service said.
In Belize, south of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, officials cancelled cruise-ship visits and fishermen headed to shore.
Wilma's confirmed pressure readings early on Wednesday dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest minimum pressure ever measured in a hurricane in the Americas, according to the hurricane centre. Lower pressure translates into higher wind-speed.
Forecasters said Wilma was stronger than the devastating Labour Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935, the strongest Atlantic hurricane to make landfall on record.
But disruptive high-altitude winds in the Gulf of Mexico should weaken Wilma before landfall, said Hugh Cobb, a meteorologist at the hurricane centre. The strongest Atlantic storm on record, based on pressure readings, had been Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which registered 888 millibars.
Although the storm was not expected to approach Florida until the weekend, officials ordered visitors to leave the Florida Keys and some residents began buying water, canned food and other emergency supplies. Many said they had been influenced by the devastation from a succession of hurricanes that have ravaged the southern United States.
"People have learned their lesson and know better how to prepare. We're not waiting until the last minute anymore," said Andrea Yerger, 48, of Port Charlotte, Florida. She was buying material to protect her house, which had to be gutted because of extensive damage from Hurricane Charley last year.
Wilma's track could take it near Punta Gorda on Florida's south-western Gulf Coast and other areas hit by Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, in August 2004.
The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since August 2004, causing more than $20 billion (11.5 billion) in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.
Forecasters said Wilma should avoid the central US gulf coast devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita earlier this year. Those storms killed more than 1,200 people and caused billions of dollars of damage.
Wilma is the record-tying 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, the same number reached in 1969. Records have been kept since 1851.
On Monday, Wilma became the Atlantic hurricane season's 21st named storm, including hurricanes, and tied the record set in 1933 and exhausting the list of names for this year. The six-month hurricane season does not end until 30 November. Any new storms would be named with letters from the Greek alphabet, starting with alpha.