September 20, 2005

Florida Keys batten down for Rita

By Michael Christie

MIAMI (Reuters) - Gusty squalls and heavy rain began to
lash the Florida Keys on Tuesday as Tropical Storm Rita raced
toward the low-lying islands.

All 80,000 residents were ordered out of the Keys on Monday
but many remained behind in boarded-up homes to await the
arrival of Rita. The storm was expected to strengthen into a
hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico where deadly
Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc three weeks ago.

"It's raining pretty hard (but) there's no big wind yet,"
said Keys resident Mare Contrare, who protected her house with
aluminum sheets. Contrare said it seemed too early to judge
whether staying in the storm's path had been a mistake. "At
this point it seems fine," she said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez cautioned southern Florida
not to dismiss the power of the coming storm, even as it
struggled to reach hurricane strength.

"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. Major Ray Nagin
suspended plans for some residents to return to the sodden

Oil companies only starting to recover from Katrina
evacuated 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 with
sustained winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph) as it drew
strength from warm Gulf waters after passing by the Keys on
Tuesday, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

By 8 a.m. EDT, the 17th tropical storm of an exceptionally
busy Atlantic hurricane season had sustained winds of 70 mph
(110 kph), just 4 mph (6.4 km/h) short of hurricane status. The
winds had not increased since Monday afternoon.

Rita's center was about 100 miles east-southeast of Key
West, Florida. The storm was headed west-northwest at about 15
mph (24 kph) and was expected to reach the Texas Gulf Coast
later in the week, forecasters said.

Rita was expected to 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 islands.

Military cargo planes evacuated the Keys' three acute-care

Tropical storm-force winds were also being felt in the
Miami area, home to 2.3 million people. About 3,900 homes and
businesses were without power in Miami-Dade County, according
to state officials.

Rita would be the seventh hurricane to hit Florida in 13

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 Michael Peltier in Tallahassee)