August 29, 2006

Ernesto Aims at Storm-battered Florida

By Tom Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto bore down on south Florida on Tuesday but forecasters said there was only a small chance it would regain hurricane strength before barreling into the state's most populous areas.

Residents of Miami and Fort Lauderdale formed long lines at gasoline stations, emptied stores of batteries and other supplies and filled sandbags on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded most of New Orleans, killed about 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage.

A state of emergency was in effect in Florida. Tourists were ordered out of the low-lying Florida Keys as the first rain squalls whipped ashore and courts and schools were closed. Some airlines canceled flights.

At 11 a.m. EDT, Ernesto's sustained winds were blowing at 45 mph (72 kph) over the warm waters of the Florida Straits and further strengthening was expected before the storm hit Florida, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

"There is still the outside possibility that Ernesto could reach hurricane strength before reaching Florida, although we think the most likely scenario is that it will be a strong tropical storm," hurricane specialist Richard Knabb told reporters at the Miami-based hurricane center.

The center of the storm was 170 miles east-southeast of Key West, and about 180 miles from Miami. Ernesto was moving northwest at 13 mph (21 kph).

The center of the storm was expected to be near the Keys or southern Florida by Tuesday night, with its outer bands arriving several hours earlier.

Along the Overseas Highway that connects the Florida Keys island chain to the mainland, residents parked their cars near bridges where they would be above any likely storm surge.

"People are scared because of Wilma," said Ada Martinez, a Monroe County shelter manager at the Sugarloaf High School, referring to the passage last October of Hurricane Wilma, which flooded 3,700 of the 15,000 homes in the town of Key West.


In Miami, long lines formed for a second day at gas stations as residents filled their cars in anticipation of widespread power outages, which would prevent many gasoline stations from pumping gas.

After passing over much of the Florida peninsula, Ernesto could re-emerge over the Atlantic and make a second landfall in South or North Carolina, becoming a hurricane again on the way, the hurricane center said.

The National Weather Service said the main concern across south Florida was flooding, with rain up to 15 inches, and a possible storm tide up to five feet above normal sweeping along the Biscayne Bay shoreline.

"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. Shelters were opened for people living in insecure structures such as mobile homes.

Ernesto was briefly the year's first hurricane on Sunday when its top winds reached 75 mph (121 kph) 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.