September 19, 2005

Rita headed for Florida Keys

MIAMI (Reuters) - Tourists fled and retailersboarded up
their stores in the vulnerable Florida Keys on Monday as
Tropical Storm Rita strengthened near the Bahamas, looking
poised to power its way into the Gulf of Mexico.

Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans,
killing hundreds, Rita was expected to become a hurricane by
late Monday and then move between southern Florida and Cuba
before making its way toward battered Louisiana or the Texas

Rita was likely to become a major hurricane with winds of
at least 111 mph (178 kph) as it drew strength from the warm
waters of the Gulf of Mexico, said Max Mayfield, director the
U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

"It's moving over very high-octane fuel here," Mayfield
told CNN.

Rita's center was about 430 miles east-southeast of Key
West, Florida, at 11 a.m.. It was moving west-northwest at 12
mph (19 kph) and had top winds of 65 mph (100 kph).

Rita was expected to strengthen into a hurricane with winds
of at least 74 mph (119 kph) by Monday night and move over the
lower Florida Keys on Tuesday, then strengthen further as it
moved into the Gulf of Mexico by Wednesday.

Mayfield cautioned the storm still could veer north to the
Miami metropolitan area, home to 2.3 million people. Miami-Dade
County officials urged residents to evacuate barrier islands
and flood-prone areas.

"The main impact we think will be on the Florida Keys but
this is just cutting it too close," Mayfield said.

Authorities in the Florida Keys, a 110-mile (177-km) chain
of islands connected to mainland Florida by a single road,
ordered everyone to leave the lower half of the island chain,
including Key West.


"The stores are all boarded up but it's open, everybody's
very mellow. The tourists are all gone," said Christelle Orr of
the Rooftop Cafe in Key West.

But many residents were reluctant to leave the laid-back
island for what was expected to be a weak hurricane as it
passed them.

"I don't want to say they're not taking it seriously but
they know it's going to be a '1', and 'Category 1' down here is
like, whatever," Orr said. "We may be crazy (not to evacuate)
but I mean it's not like Louisiana, you know, we're not under
water," she said as workers boarded up the cafe.

A hurricane warning was issued for south Florida from just
north of Miami on the Atlantic Coast, through the Florida Keys
and up to Cape Sable on the state's Gulf coast, alerting
residents to expect hurricane conditions within 24 hours.

Hurricane warnings were also in effect for the northwest
islands of the Bahamas and northwestern Cuba.

The Bahamian national airline, Bahamasair, canceled
flights. The Bahamian government urged people to stay off the
roads as much as possible because of the risk of flying debris.

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. Rita was No. 17.

Hurricane Katrina has been blamed for at least 883 deaths
in six states.

Hurricane Philippe, meanwhile, upgraded from a tropical
storm overnight, was about 365 miles east of the Leeward
Islands of the Caribbean but did not threaten land.