Deadly Wilma lurking

USF officials will hold a hurricane preparedness meeting on Friday afternoon as Hurricane Wilma, which still poses a substantial threat despite being downgraded to a Category 4 storm, readies itself to assault Florida’s Gulf Coast.

As of Wednesday night, USF’s homecoming game against West Virginia has been postponed, and officials will announce the makeup date sometime today, Sports Information Director John Gerdes said. However, no plans to cancel classes or other homecoming festivities have been made, according to Media Relations Director Michelle Carlyon.

“The storm is too far away right now to make those decisions,” Carlyon said. “We’ll keep monitoring it.”

Carlyon said students and faculty should check USF’s home page and monitor local media outlets for news of cancellations and postponements. They can also call 1-800-992-4231 for storm-related information.

At 11 p.m. Wednesday, Wilma was downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph It is moving west-northwest at about 8 m.p.h.

The 11 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center said Wilma could regain Category 5 status on Thursday.

At least 13 people in Haiti have died as a result of flooding caused by Wilma, according to the Associated Press.

Predicting the storm’s path is proving difficult for forecasters, with National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield calling Wilma “one of the more perplexing storms we’ve had to deal with this year.”

Most projected paths predict Wilma will make landfall well south of Tampa near Naples sometime Saturday afternoon.

Wilma blew up to a Category 5 hurricane Wednesday morning just 24 hours after it was a tropical storm. Wednesday afternoon it carried sustained winds of 175 mph and boasted the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded for a storm in the Atlantic Basin. The lower a storm’s barometric pressure, the stronger its winds.

Although forecasters predict the storm could become a Category 3 by the time it makes landfall, they warn the storm could cause severe damage and catastrophic loss of life.

“We had well over 1,000 lives lost in Katrina,” Mayfield said. “If Wilma comes into the U.S. – to the Florida coast – as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, that potential for large loss of life is with us.” It could be especially detrimental to the Tampa Bay area.

“I will assure you that if this one makes landfall on the Gulf Coast of Florida, there will be a tremendous storm surge,” Mayfield said. “And if it’s a Category 4, we could easily have 15 to 20 feet near and south of where the center crosses the coast with up to even 25 feet up into the bays and the rivers.”