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Visitors urged to leave Florida Keys ahead of tropical storm

Monday, August 18, 2008

KEY WEST, Fla. -- Florida Keys officials closed schools, opened shelters and urged visitors to leave as Tropical Storm Fay threatened to strengthen into a hurricane Sunday, but residents and some tourists seemed in no hurry to evacuate.

Traffic leaving Key West and the Lower Keys on Sunday afternoon was light but steady as the sky darkened with storm clouds and the National Weather Service issued watches and warnings.

"We've seen worse than this in Omaha," said Diego Sainz, who was visiting from Nebraska with his wife and friends. They had intended to leave Sunday but couldn't get a flight out.

Authorities said traffic was heavier in the Upper Keys, where the 110-mile, mostly two-lane highway that runs through the island chain meets the mainland. The Florida Highway Patrol sent in extra troopers to assist and tolls were suspended on parts of the northbound turnpike.

Fay could start pelting parts of the Keys and South Florida late today or early Tuesday as a strong tropical storm or minimal hurricane. Aside from wind damage, most of the islands sit at sea level and could face some limited flooding from Fay's storm surge.

Officials in the Keys and elsewhere planned to open shelters and encouraged or ordered people who live in low-lying areas and on boats to evacuate. Schools in the Keys will be closed today and Tuesday.

Keys officials earlier Sunday had issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors and asked those who had not yet arrived to postpone their trips. Officials said hotels and businesses won't be forced to remove visitors, but they should use common sense.

Fay, the sixth storm of the 2008 Atlantic season, was slowing down Sunday night and moving erratically, but forecasters still expected it to strengthen slowly to a hurricane. Fay has already killed at least five people after battering Haiti and the Dominican Republic with weekend torrential rains and floods.

At 10 p.m. central time, the storm's center was about 235 miles south-southeast of Key West. The storm was moving west-northwest about 10 mph. Maximum sustained winds were 50 mph.

Forecasters expected the storm to begin moving more to the northwest later Sunday night. Current models show the storm moving up the western coast of Florida, although forecasters still didn't know exactly where it would make landfall.

Some Key West businesses began putting up hurricane shutters Sunday, but tourists and residents still strolled lazily through town, where the weather alternated from sunny to occasional downpours with light wind gusts.

Sainz and friend Ron Norgard, also of Omaha, sat outside the La Concha Hotel in Key West on rocking chairs, smoking cigarettes and waiting for their wives to return from shopping.

Sainz joked he was going to charge Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the extra money his wife was spending because they couldn't leave.

"Somebody's gotta pay," he quipped.

Crist declared a state of emergency Saturday as an emergency operations center opened in Tallahassee. He urged Floridians "to remain calm, remain vigilant" and said 9,000 Florida National Guard troops were available, but only 500 were on active duty Sunday.

Maria Perez, 50, of Key West, prayed at a town shrine known as The Grotto, where an etching on a stone reads, "As long as the Grotto stands, Key West will never again experience the full brunt of a hurricane." It was built in 1922 by nuns outside a Roman Catholic church, three years after a catastrophic storm. So far, the 86-year-old invocation has worked.

"I pray not to have the storm," Perez said. "I am not afraid."

A hurricane watch was in effect for most of the Keys and along Florida's west coast to Tarpon Springs. A tropical storm watch was also in effect for the southeast coast of Florida from Ocean Reef north to Jupiter Inlet.

Forecasters said rainfall totals of 4 to 6 inches with maximum amounts of 10 inches were possible for the Florida Keys and South Florida.

In the Tampa Bay area, residents bought plywood, water, extra batteries, generators, and candles. Home Depot Manager Tony Quillen said his Pinellas Park store sold out of water by 9 a.m., two hours after opening, but he expected another supply in the afternoon.

"People are playing in their head, considering what happened the last time," Quillen said, referring to hurricanes including Charley in 2004, a Category 4 storm.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was briefed on the storm by emergency officials after flying into Orlando for campaign events. A Monday fundraiser in Miami was canceled as a precaution.

Officials with Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays were watching the storm to see if they'll have to postpone a three-game homestand. The team plays in a dome that also serves as a command center for St. Petersburg.

Key West was last seriously affected by a hurricane in 2005, when Category 3 Wilma sped past. The town escaped widespread wind damage, but a storm surge flooded hundreds of homes and some businesses. The deadliest storm to hit the island was a Category 4 hurricane in 1919 that killed up to 900 people, many of them offshore on ships that sank.

The Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 passed over the middle Keys, killing more than 400 people, more than half of them World War I veterans living in rehabilitation camps.


Associated Press writers Christine Armario in Tampa and Lisa Orkin Emmanuel in Miami contributed to this report.


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