September 18, 2005

Tropical storm forms near Bahamas

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 late on
Monday, 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 Islands were all under
storm alerts.

At 8 p.m. EDT (2400 GMT), Rita's center was about 330 miles
east-southeast of Nassau, Bahamas, and moving northwest near 9
mph (15 kph). A gradual turn toward the west-northwest or west
was expected later on Sunday or on Monday, which would take it
over the southeast and central Bahamas Sunday night and Monday.

Forecasters said Rita's path could take it into the Gulf of
Mexico by Tuesday or Wednesday.

Rita's sustained winds had strengthened to near 50 mph (85
kph), with higher gusts.

"Additional strengthening is expected during the next 24
hours," the National Hurricane Center said in its latest storm
update, adding that Rita could become a Category 1 hurricane by
late Monday.

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.

The National Hurricane Center cautioned that residents in
mobile homes and in low-lying areas should prepare now for
possible evacuation.

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.

"Weather conditions will deteriorate slowly on Monday," the
National Hurricane Center said. "Hurricane force winds of 74
mph (119 kph) or greater will be possible in the Florida Keys
as early as Tuesday morning.

Southeastern 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
formation.

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.