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Hurricane Wilma Churns Toward Florida


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Hurricanes are named in alphabetical order; we started this year with Arlene. And it tells you something about the kind of season we've had when we're leading our broadcast with news about a hurricane called Wilma. Wilma is the 21st named storm--a few letters are skipped over--and she is incredibly strong, a Category 5 storm, with winds near 165 miles an hour and a minimum pressure of 882 millibars. That's a record for the Atlantic. Christopher Landsea is science operations officer at the National Hurricane Center.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Landsea.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER LANDSEA (Science Operations Officer, National Hurricane Center): Yeah, thank you.

SIEGEL: And let's start with some basics. Where is Wilma right now?

Dr. LANDSEA: Well, currently Wilma's at 17.7 north latitude, 83.7 west; makes it about 285 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, right now.

SIEGEL: And where is the storm headed?

Dr. LANDSEA: Well, it's still moving to the west-northwest fairly slowly, about 6 or 7 miles per hour, and it's expected to turn a bit toward the northwest over the next day.

SIEGEL: Saying that it's a Category 5 storm implies it's a big storm. Just how big a storm is this?

Dr. LANDSEA: Well, actually the circulation itself is not that large. You know, hurricane-force winds only extend outward about 60 miles from the center. So it's moderate in size but extremely strong in the peak winds near the eye itself.

SIEGEL: Now at this point people all over Florida are worrying that this storm may hit them, may cone ashore where they are. Should they be worrying about that right now?

Dr. LANDSEA: Well, they certainly should be very concerned about it, and at this point, though, it's more likely to be an impact in Saturday or Sunday, so that there's no immediate impacts to be seen. What we're more concerned about at this point is that we have a hurricane warning for the northeastern portion of Mexico. So it may make landfall in Mexico tomorrow night or Friday, and if it does, that's the most immediate concern.

SIEGEL: How accurate are the models that you're working with? I mean, can it--when you say northeast Mexico by Friday or so, do you feel 90 percent certain of that or a lot less certain of that?

Dr. LANDSEA: Well, it's either going to be very close or a direct hit near the northeastern tip near Cozumel area, probably on the order of 60 to 70 percent chance. A one-day forecast, for example, has an average error of about 50 to 60 miles.

SIEGEL: And let's say it hits in Mexico. After that, does it typically--would it typically get spent over Mexico and fizzle out, or might it yet head elsewhere in the Gulf?

Dr. LANDSEA: It's a very uncertain forecast. If it misses Mexico, it'll remain a strong hurricane most likely because the ocean and the atmosphere are both conducive for it to be strong. If it stays over Mexico for an extended period of time, say 12 hours or a day, it'll weaken dramatically. So it's two different scenarios, depending on where this hurricane goes over the next two days.

SIEGEL: Now to the layperson, this number of storms, the one-two punch of Katrina and then Rita and now Wilma, it seems like this is an extraordinary hurricane season. Is it, or can you all point back to other years in relatively recent history that have been similar?

Dr. LANDSEA: Well, there's no doubt that it is an extraordinary year. We've tied the record for number of storms, tied the record for number of hurricanes. We do have some analog years, like 1969 or 1933 or 1995 or 1950, that were also very busy, somewhat similar to this. But without a doubt this is going to go down as one of the worst hurricane seasons on record.

SIEGEL: And does it continue a trend over the years, or is it simply an odd peak that might very well subside next year?

Dr. LANDSEA: Well, no, it's definitely part of a cycle of activity. The last 11 years, not just this year or 2004, but for over a decade now, we've seen some very busy hurricane seasons. And it's what we think is part of a cycle that lasts for 25 to 40 years busy with 25 to 40 years of quiet.

SIEGEL: Dr. Landsea, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Dr. LANDSEA: Yeah, glad to help out.

SIEGEL: That's Christopher Landsea, who is science operations officer at the National Hurricane Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.