August 29, 2006

Tropical Storm Ernesto Bears Down on South Florida

By Tom Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto bore down on south Florida on Tuesday but forecasters said it was not expected to regain hurricane strength before churning across the state's most densely-populated 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 law courts and schools were closed. Some airlines canceled flights.

Authorities, while sounding words of caution about the need for storm preparations, signaled that they were not expecting much damage from Ernesto.

"This does not look like a catastrophic event but we always want to be ready," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters in Tallahassee after meeting with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

At 2 p.m. (1800 GMT), 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 National Hurricane Center said.

The winds were expected to intensify to as much as 70 mph (113 kph) by the time the center of the storm makes landfall near the Keys or southern Florida on Tuesday night.

But Mark McInerney, a meteorologist the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, said Ernesto would lack the punch of a hurricane. "It's still going to be a very strong tropical storm but less than the category to make it a hurricane," he told Reuters.


The storm's center was 135 miles east-southeast of Key West and about the same distance from Miami. Ernesto was moving northwest at 13 mph (21 kph).

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 most 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.

It warned that a coastal storm surge flooding up to 3 feet above normal tide levels could be expected in some areas, along with rainfall totaling as much as 10 inches to 15 inches.

"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.

Gov. Bush said thousands of area homes still had only blue tarpaulins 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.