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Rita bears down on Florida Keys

September 20, 2005

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Rita raced toward the
Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico with forecasters expecting
it to strengthen into a hurricane on Tuesday, three weeks after
Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans and hammered the U.S.
Gulf Coast.

All 80,000 residents were ordered out of the Keys on Monday
and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez cautioned southern Florida
not to dismiss the power of the coming storm.

“Tropical Storm Rita is a serious threat. Do not
underestimate this storm,” he said. “Stay home. No matter what,
we’re going to have lousy weather.” Schools, many government
offices and some businesses were closed on Tuesday.

A Louisiana official warned that levees in New Orleans,
where hundreds died in Katrina’s floods, would fail again if
the city were smashed by a new storm surge and the city ordered
residents to leave. Oil companies only starting to recover from
Katrina began to evacuate Gulf oil rigs.

Private forecasters said there was a 40 percent chance that
damaging hurricane-force winds would directly affect major Gulf
energy production areas.

Rita was expected to become a major hurricane Tuesday with
sustained winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph) as it drew
strength from warm Gulf waters after passing over or near the
Florida Keys on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in
Miami said.

Forecasters said Rita, the 17th tropical storm of an
exceptionally busy Atlantic hurricane season, would likely
reach hurricane strength, with winds of 74 mph (119 kph) or
greater, early on Tuesday. Its sustained winds were 70 mph (110
kph).

Rita’s center was about 160 miles east-southeast of Key
West, Florida, at 5 a.m., on Tuesday and was headed toward the
west-northwest at about 15 mph (24 kph), forecasters said. It
was expected to continue on this path for the next 24 hours.

The Hurricane Center cautioned that Rita could still veer
north to the Miami area, home to 2.3 million people. Miami-Dade
County officials urged residents to evacuate mobile homes,
barrier islands and flood-prone areas, and long lines formed at
gas stations as motorists filled their tanks.

Rita could drench the Keys, a 110-mile (177-km) island
chain, with up to 15 inches of rain and send a wall of seawater
up to 9 feet above normal surging over the low-lying islands.

To speed the exodus, both lanes of the two-lane highway
connecting the islands to southern Florida were designated
northbound. Public buses ferried those who lacked
transportation.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Monday suspended a plan to
bring residents back and told all those now in the stricken
city to leave because of fears that Rita could swamp damaged
levees and wreak new havoc. Katrina has been blamed for nearly
1,000 deaths in six states, most of them in Louisiana.

A Louisiana emergency preparedness official said the state
was planning to move 13,000 Katrina evacuees living in public
shelters farther away from the coast and advised people in
Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, all devastated
by Katrina, to evacuate by Wednesday morning.

‘SERIOUS, SERIOUS BUSINESS’

In the Florida Keys, military cargo planes evacuated the
Keys’ three acute-care hospitals. Some residents, reluctant to
leave the laid-back islands, were confident Rita would hit them
as a Category 1, the lowest rung on the five-step scale of
hurricane intensity.

“The stores are all boarded up but it’s open, everybody’s
very mellow. The tourists are all gone,” said Key West resident
Christelle Orr on Monday. “We may be crazy (not to evacuate)
but I mean it’s not like Louisiana, you know, we’re not under
water.”

Rita would be the seventh hurricane to hit Florida in the
last 13 months.

A hurricane warning was in effect for all of the Florida
Keys and the southeast and southwest coasts of the state,
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 Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November
30 and produces an average of about 11 tropical storms or
hurricanes. Forecasters had predicted an unusual 2005 season
with up to 21 storms due to warm sea temperatures and other
conditions favorable to hurricanes.

(Additional reporting by Jim Loney, Laura Myers and Michael
Christie)




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