MIAMI - Tropical Storm Wilma strengthened into a hurricane Tuesday on a path that could threaten storm-battered Florida, tying the record for the most hurricanes to form in an Atlantic season.
Wilma is the 12th hurricane of the season, the same number reached in 1969, the highest since record-keeping began in 1851. At 2 p.m. EDT, Wilma had top sustained winds near 80 mph, or 6 mph above the threshold for a hurricane.
Long-range forecasts show Wilma could hit western Cuba or Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula before heading into the Gulf of Mexico by Friday. The storm could also spare those countries while passing through the Yucatan Channel. Either way, computer models showed Wilma turning northeastward and bearing down on Florida during the weekend.
It is forecast to become a Category 3 hurricane with wind exceeding 111 mph by Thursday, 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.
Seven hurricanes have hit or passed close to Florida since August 2004, causing damage estimated at more than $20 billion and killing nearly 150 people. 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.
In Punta Gorda, which was devastated by Charley, there was little evidence Tuesday of preparation for Wilma but Dawn Andrews, a worker at Deep Creek Florist, said she already had emergency supplies like bottled water and canned food.
"It's got nowhere else to go without hurting somebody," Andrews, 35, said of Wilma. "I have a 7-year-old who's petrified just because of everything he's seen on TV. I can't even watch it when he's around."
Wilma entered the history books Monday, becoming the Atlantic hurricane season's 21st named storm before dawn, tying the record set in 1933 and exhausting the list of storm names.
At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Wilma's center was about 180 miles south of Grand Cayman, or about 540 miles south of Key West, Fla. It was moving west-northwest near 8 mph.
The Gulf Coast was already battered this year by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Dennis, while Emily hit Mexico. Areas devastated by Katrina will likely be spared by Wilma.
The Cayman Islands were under a hurricane watch, meaning those conditions could be felt within 36 hours, and a tropical storm warning was posted there and for the coast of Honduras. Two to 6 inches of rain was expected 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. Storms have gotten alphabetical names only in the past 60 years.
There have been 10 late-season hurricanes Category 3 or higher since 1995.