August 29, 2006

Ernesto targets Florida

By Tom Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto began intensifying
on Tuesday as it left Cuba and headed over open water toward
south Florida where forecasters said there was a chance it
could come ashore at hurricane strength.

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a state of
emergency was in effect in Florida. Residents stocked up on
supplies, tourists were ordered out of the Florida Keys and
courts and schools were closed.

At 8 a.m. 1200 GMT), Ernesto's maximum sustained winds,
which strengthened earlier in the morning, were 45 mph over the
warm waters of the Florida Straits and were expected to gain
strength over the next 24 hours, the Miami-based National
Hurricane Center said.

The storm was centered 200 miles southeast of Key West,
Florida, and about 215 miles from Miami. Ernesto was moving
northwest at 14 mph.

The storm center was expected to approach the Florida Keys
or heavily populated southeast Florida by evening, with rain
bands from Ernesto moving onshore by afternoon.

"Now that Ernesto has moved back over water at least some
steady intensification is expected," the hurricane center said,
adding there was a chance the storm "could become a hurricane
before reaching Florida."

Ernesto could later re-emerge over the Atlantic off
northeast Florida and make a second landfall in the Carolinas
in 60 to 72 hours, also near hurricane intensity.

The National Weather Service said the main concern was
potential flooding, with up to 15 inches of rain possible in
some areas of mainland South Florida and a possible storm tide
of three to five feet above mean sea level along the Biscayne
Bay shore of Miami-Dade County.

Ernesto was briefly the year's first hurricane on Sunday
when its top winds reached 75 mph before it weakened over the
mountains of Haiti.

The storm killed two people in Haiti before striking Cuba,
where it dropped up to 7 inches of rain before fading into
showers and thunderstorms.


Officials and residents were mindful of the danger a year
after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of New Orleans, killed
about 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage.

Florida has been hit by eight hurricanes in two years.
State officials said there should be no loss of life from
Ernesto but residents hoarded staple foods and sat in long
lines waiting to tank up their vehicles. In many gasoline
stations, high-priced "premium" was the only fuel left.

"Please make sure that you have water, you have food and
you have all the necessities that you are going to need," said
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said thousands of area homes still
had only blue tarpaulin for roofs, after last year's
hurricanes. Evacuation centers opened early on Tuesday for
people living in insecure structures such as mobile homes.

"Just prepare. It's not fun and games," Mike Puto, city
manager of Marathon in the Keys, told residents.

In Cuba, many of the 600,000 people who were evacuated
returned home and there were no initial reports of deaths or
serious damage.

Oil prices edged up on Tuesday after falling more than $2
on Monday as Ernesto seemed less likely to threaten oil
facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, where a quarter of U.S. oil
and gas is pumped.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana, Michael
Christie in Miami, Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince,
Michael Peltier in Tallahassee, Peter Henderson in New Orleans,
Laura Myers in Key West, Ed Leefeldt in New York)