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By JOHN PAIN
Associated Press Writer
MIAMI (AP) -- Tropical Storm Wilma stalled over the warm water of the northwestern Caribbean on Tuesday and forecasters said it could strengthen into a hurricane and menace Florida this weekend.
Wilma entered the history books Monday as the Atlantic hurricane season's 21st named storm, tying the record set in 1933 and exhausting this year's list of storm names. Forecasters said it could strengthen into the year's 12th hurricane by Tuesday, which also would tie a record, set in 1969.
It is forecast to become a Category 3 hurricane with winds exceeding 111 mph by Thursday. Conditions such as warm water and favorable atmospheric winds in the northwestern Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico indicate strengthening, forecasters said.
"It does look like it poses a significant threat to Florida by the weekend. Of course, these are four- and five-day forecasts, so things can change," said Dan Brown, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
At 8 a.m. EDT, Wilma's top sustained wind speed was about 70 mph, unchanged since three hours earlier. At 74 mph, Wilma will be upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane.
Meteorologists said Wilma was nearly stationary over the northwest Caribbean Sea about 245 miles south-southeast of Grand Cayman, but it was expected to gradually move toward the west and northwest.
New forecast models placed the storm closer to western Cuba than Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula by Friday. The storm was forecast to then turn sharply in the Gulf of Mexico toward Florida during the weekend.
Seven hurricanes have either hit or passed near Florida since August 2004, and Wilma was on a path that could threaten coastal areas in the southwest part of the state hit by Hurricane Charley -- the first of the seven -- last year.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned residents Monday to prepare for another evacuation if Wilma strengthened and moved toward the city. But forecasters said that was unlikely.
"There's no scenario now that takes it toward Louisiana or Mississippi, but that could change," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The Gulf Coast was already battered this year by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Dennis, while Emily hit Mexico.
A hurricane watch remained in effect for the Cayman Islands, and a tropical storm warning was posted there and for the coast of Honduras. Two to 6 inches of rain is likely in the Caymans, southeastern Cuba, Haiti, Honduras and Jamaica, with up to 12 inches possible in some areas, forecasters said.
The six-month hurricane season ends Nov. 30. Wilma is the last on the list of storm names for 2005; there are 21 names on the yearly list because the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are skipped. If any other storms form, letters from the Greek alphabet would be used, starting with Alpha, for the first time. Hurricane record-keeping began in 1851, though storms have gotten alphabetical names only in the past 60 years.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)