August 18, 2008

Fay Aims to Rip into Florida Keys

By Dennis Cauchon

Most tourists are gone, but local residents remain as the Florida Keys prepared for the arrival of Tropical Storm Fay later today.

The National Hurricane Center predicted that the center of a weak hurricane or a strong tropical storm will hit the islands late tonight and continue to the west coast of South Florida on Tuesday morning.

A hurricane watch -- meaning a hurricane is possible within 36 hours -- was in effect. Major damage was not forecast.

"Fay is looking a little ragged," National Hurricane Center meteorologist Chris Sisko said. "But that could change once it ... taps into the warmer Gulf of Mexico conditions."

Sisko said Fay could be a Category 1 hurricane -- with winds from 74 to 95 miles per hour -- when it strikes land.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, declared a state of emergency over the weekend, which gave emergency officials the authority to order evacuations. In the Florida Keys, local officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors to leave Sunday. The order did not cover local residents, except for those living on boats or in low-lying areas.

A steady stream of traffic headed north to the mainland Sunday.

By noon, nearly all guests had left Key West's Ocean Key Resort and Spa. Manager Johan Amneus described the mood as "lively. Excited. Scared."

Local schools were set to be closed today and Tuesday. Key West International Airport planned to close its runway about 10 a.m. today.

"We're old salts down here," said lobsterman Pete Worthington, who is mayor of Marathon, Fla., a town of about 10,000 in the Florida Keys. "We've been through a lot and sweated out a lot of close calls." As a precaution, Worthington brought his 45-foot commercial fishing boat into an inland canal. The storm forecast called for a 3-foot storm surge.

Tropical Storm Fay is the sixth named storm in the Atlantic Ocean during this hurricane season. It's the first to seriously threaten Florida.

Flooding killed at least five people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Associated Press reported. The storm was forecast to pelt Cuba with heavy rains overnight into this morning before heading north toward the Florida Keys, about 90 miles away.

The storm was threatening the western side of Cuba and wasn't expected to seriously affect Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military base where terrorist suspects are held.

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