Wilma, the 21st tropical storm of the season, grew to a Category 5 hurricane Wednesday, with wind speeds of 175 m.p.h. Fueled by the warm waters of the northwest Caribbean, Wilma is expected to approach western Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula before bearing down on southwestern Florida by Saturday, forecasters said. Meteor-ologists don't anticipate that the storm will threaten New Orleans, Mississippi, or the oil rigs damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. If it hits Florida at maximum strength, it would be the strongest of six hurricanes to strike the state since Charley, a Category 4 storm, in 2004. Responding to concerns that Wilma could ravage Florida orange groves, frozen orange juice futures closed at a six-year high Tuesday.

The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers will begin Nov. 7, according to congressional aides, who leaked the information before Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R) could announce it Wednesday. Republicans have said they want a vote before the Thanksgiving recess.

Economists guessed wrong in predicting a slowdown in the housing market. Instead, construction of new single-family homes and apartment complexes rose 3.4 percent in September, the Commerce Department reported. It also said locally issued building permits increased 2.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.19 million, the highest in 32 years. But analysts said a slowing still is likely, pointing to a 6.03 percent fixed rate for 30-year federally insured mortgages - the first time the rate has been above 6 percent since March.

Victor Conte, who pleaded guilty in a plea bargain earlier this year to distributing illegal steroids to athletes, was sentenced to four months in prison and four more in home confinement in San Francisco Tuesday. According to court records, the founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative had dozens of prominent athletes as clients. Also sentenced - to three months in jail - was Greg Anderson, the personal trainer of baseball slugger Barry Bonds.

Data collected by the nonprofit College Board indicate a growing gap in graduation rates based on family incomes, The Los Angeles Times reported. Well-to-do students with the highest-level educations earn degrees at more than twice the rate of those with similar test scores but who are from families at the lowest socioeconomic level, the report said. Meanwhile, in a new report issued Wednesday, the board of National Assessment of Educational Progress said fourth- and eighth-grade students of every major racial group improved their math-test scores this year over the last set, in 2003. But progress in reading proficiency remained flat among fourth-graders and dropped at the eighth-grade level, it said.

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