Thousands pack up to evade Wilma

The hurricane, already one for the record books, sends many Gulf-side Floridians scurrying inland.

Hurricane Wilma is generating more than menacing wind, rain, and waves. Along Florida's vulnerable southwest coast, the massive storm is prompting nervous jokes as radio DJs cue the soundtrack of 1960s cartoon character Fred Flintstone bellowing for his wife: "Wiiiiiiil-maaaaa!"

Not everyone is laughing. With images of hurricanes Katrina and Rita fresh in mind, many Florida residents are casting a wary eye toward the Gulf of Mexico and the anticipated arrival of Wilma.

The storm made history - briefly, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record - in one of the stormiest years in the books. Three of the six most potent storms ever measured occurred this year. Only once before, in 1969, were there 12 named hurricanes in a single season. Not since 1933 have there been 21 hurricanes and tropical storms.

There's still time to set new marks. The hurricane season doesn't officially end until Nov. 30.

Rain and heavy waves from hurricane Wilma, a Category 4 storm, lashed Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. At press time, tourists up and down Cancún's hotel zone were gathering in lobbies, filling out forms with personal information, and waiting to be taken to safety. One of them, Christy Cryanowsky, was supposed to get married here on the beach Saturday.

"I looked out my window this morning and the altar had been smashed to bits by the winds," she said, looking down at her manicured nails and bursting into tears. "At this point I don't care about anything. I just want everyone to be OK."

It is still too early to predict where the hurricane will make landfall in the United States, but storm-savvy Floridians from Tampa to Key West say they are hoping for the best, while preparing for the worst.

"This is one to worry about," says Jeff Johnston, a 15-year resident of Marco Island. "When it comes from the Gulf side you'd better take this seriously."

The last major hurricane to hit Marco was Andrew in 1992. But it came from the east after sweeping across south Florida. By the time it reached Marco Island, wind speeds were lower and residents here say there was no significant storm surge.

In contrast, hurricane Wilma's anticipated approach from the open Gulf would mean unrestrained winds, rain, and storm surge. For an island with an average elevation of five feet above sea level and an extensive network of interior canals, such a storm could quickly convert Marco into Florida's version of Atlantis.

"It won't take much of a surge," says Sue Peirson, who has spent her winters on Marco for 14 years. Mrs. Peirson is a veteran of hurricanes, having weathered many in her summer home on Cape Cod. But she says she has no desire to ride out the storm on Marco. She notes that the city's electric-power supply is exposed on street poles that may be blown over, and the water department routinely shuts off the water during major storms.

"You might survive the storm but you would have an awful time for the next four days," she says. Peirson and her husband plan to stay with their son on Florida's east coast.

Although Marco Island has a long history as an Indian settlement site, it is a relatively new city of high-rise condos and million- dollar canal-front homes. There are 15,000 year-round residents, and the population swells to 35,000 during the winter season. The city was carved out of the northern edge of the mangrove maze known as the Ten Thousand Islands in the 1960s and '70s. But like the rest of southwest Florida, building has exploded in the past 15 years.

For a place like Marco, a major hurricane's landfall would represent the first real test of construction methods and building codes for the condominium towers along the beach and the island's single-family homes.

City officials are urging residents to leave. Most of those interviewed said they plan to flee to higher ground. As early as Wednesday, lines appeared at local gas stations, and water disappeared from store shelves.

The best organized had already obtained hotel reservations in Tampa or Orlando. Others planned on loading up and making a run for it.

"I'll get in my truck and go right up the middle of the state and stay clear of the beaches," says retiree Melvin Carpenter.

Carpenter lives at the Drop Anchor Mobile Home Park in nearby Goodland. The park is about 100 feet from the water's edge. "You'd have to have a screw loose upstairs to be hanging around when a storm like that comes," he says.

Damas Kirk, president of Kirk Fish Co. in Goodland, says there is no debate about whether to evacuate. He remembers hurricane Donna in 1960. "It blew whole houses over, whole houses flipped over in the mangroves," he says. "I didn't stay here for Donna, and I won't stay for this."

Wayne Murphy of Marco Island has a different idea. He says he's not going anywhere.

"It scares me a little," Mr. Murphy admits, while loading two weeks' worth of storm supplies into his van. But "I'm a disabled vet. I've been through hell and back, and I'm staying."

Danna Harman contributed to this story from Cancún, Mexico.

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