September 18, 2005

Tourist evacuation ordered in Florida Keys

MIAMI (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Rita, the 17th tropical
storm of the busy Atlantic hurricane season, formed near the
Bahamas on Sunday and prompted an evacuation order for tourists
in the lower Florida Keys.

Forecasters said Rita could be a hurricane by Tuesday, when
it was expected to be in the Florida Straits between the Keys
and Cuba. The Bahamas, southeastern Florida, the Keys, Cuba and
the Turks and Caicos were all under storm alerts.

At 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), the center of Rita was about 355
miles east-southeast of Nassau, the Bahamian capital, the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said. It was moving to the west at
about 10 mph (16 kph), on a path that could take it into the
Gulf of Mexico by Tuesday or Wednesday.

Rita had sustained winds of 40 mph (65 kph).

Authorities in the Florida Keys, a 110-mile chain of
islands off the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, began a
phased evacuation, telling visitors to leave the lower Keys
between the Seven-Mile Bridge and Key West. Schools were
ordered closed on Monday and Tuesday.

A hurricane watch, alerting residents to possible hurricane
conditions within 36 hours, was in effect for the Keys, parts
of Cuba, and the northwestern Bahamas.

Eastern Florida from Deerfield Beach south to Florida City
was under a tropical storm watch.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for the Turks and
Caicos islands, a British territory near the Bahamas, and for
the central and southeast Bahamas.

The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to
November 30, produces an average of about 11 tropical storms or
hurricanes. But forecasters had predicted an above-average
season with as many as 21 storms due to high sea-surface
temperatures and other conditions favorable to hurricane

Hurricane Katrina has been blamed for at least 883 deaths
after it hit the U.S. Gulf coast in late August.

Tropical Storm Philippe, meanwhile, was about 400 miles

east of the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean. It was moving
on a north-northwest track that would take it through the open
Atlantic and was no immediate threat to land.