Bracing and waiting

USF officials will meet this afternoon to discuss preparation strategies as a dawdling Hurricane Wilma confuses forecasters about exactly when and where the storm will make landfall.

Media Relations Director Michelle Carlyon said officials will lay out a proper plan of action in the case that Wilma poses a substantial threat to the Tampa area.

“They’re going to talk about what to do next, how much gas we have, about the students and sports,” Carlyon said. “They’ll see what (Hillsborough County) is doing as a guide.”

In a worst-case scenario, Carlyon said, the University will strongly encourage students living in residence halls to leave campus and stay with friends or family.

USF will provide students who don’t have that option with transportation to local shelters, Carlyon said.

“We’ll only do that if it looks like (Wilma) is going to hit us directly,” Carlyon said.

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said Thursday most models predict Wilma will make a sharp right turn after it enters the Gulf of Mexico, but where the storm will make landfall is still up in the air. Most models, though, have Wilma hitting far south of Tampa, near Port Charlotte.

After lagging through the Yucatan Peninsula through much of Thursday, forecasters are now predicting landfall late Sunday, more than a day after originally anticipated.

According to Steve Porter, who coordinates sheltering for Hillsborough County’s Emergency Planning office, the only on-campus shelter available to students would be Pizzo Elementary School.

The Sun Dome is strictly for special-needs persons and not available to students as shelter, Porter said.

“(Students) can volunteer there if they want, though,” he said.

While Porter warned that Pizzo would fill up quickly, he said there are other shelters close to campus, including Greco and Benito Middle Schools and Wharton High School (see graphic for details).

The USF area would be one of the safest places to be in the unlikely event of Wilma directly hitting Tampa, Porter said.

“USF is on one of the highest points in Hillsborough County,” Porter said. “There will be no surge there. If there’s a surge at USF, you’ll see an old man with a boat and a bunch of animals.”

With winds whipping at 150 mph, Wilma, still a Category 4 as of 11 p.m. Thursday, was reorganizing as it began to make its much-anticipated but sluggish turn toward Florida’s peninsula.

Although Mayfield said he expects Wilma to probably be a 3 or a 2 when it makes landfall, he stresses it will still pack a big punch.

“Even a Category 2 would have big consequences there,” he said.