Tropical Storm Rita forms near Bahamas

MIAMI (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Rita, the 17th tropical
storm of the busy Atlantic hurricane season, formed near the
Bahamas on Sunday and prompted an evacuation order for tourists
in the lower Florida Keys.

Forecasters said Rita could be a hurricane by late on
Monday, when it was expected to be in the Florida Straits
between the Keys and Cuba. The Bahamas, southern Florida, the
Keys, Cuba and the Turks and Caicos Islands were all under
storm alerts.

At 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT), Rita’s center was about 295
miles east-southeast of Nassau, Bahamas, and moving
west-northwest at about 10 mph (16 kph).

Forecasters said Rita’s path could take it into the Gulf of
Mexico by Tuesday or Wednesday.

Rita’s sustained winds had strengthened to near 50 mph (85
kph), with higher gusts.

Authorities in the Florida Keys, a 110-mile chain of
islands off the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, began a
phased evacuation, telling visitors to leave the lower Keys
between the Seven-Mile Bridge and Key West. Schools were
ordered closed on Monday and Tuesday.

The National Hurricane Center cautioned that residents in
mobile homes and in low-lying areas should prepare now for
possible evacuation.


A hurricane warning alerting residents to possible
hurricane conditions within 24 hours was in effect for all of
the Keys.

A hurricane watch, telling people they could see hurricane
conditions in 36 hours, was in effect for the northwestern
Bahamas and parts of Cuba.

“Weather conditions will deteriorate slowly on Monday,” the
National Hurricane Center said. “Hurricane force winds of 74
mph (119 kph) or greater will be possible in the Florida Keys
as early as Tuesday morning.

Authorities upgraded the alerts for mainland Florida,
putting the southeastern section of the state from Deerfield
Beach south to Florida City under a tropical storm warning and
hurricane watch.

Southwestern Florida from East Cape Sable to Chokoloskee
was put under a tropical storm watch.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for the Turks and
Caicos islands, a British territory near the Bahamas, and for
the central and southeast Bahamas.

The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to
November 30, produces an average of about 11 tropical storms or
hurricanes. But forecasters had predicted an above-average
season with as many as 21 storms due to high sea-surface
temperatures and other conditions favorable to hurricane

Hurricane Katrina has been blamed for at least 883 deaths
after it hit the U.S. Gulf coast in late August.

Tropical Storm Philippe, meanwhile, was upgraded to a
hurricane as sustained winds reached 75 mph (120 kph) but was
no immediate threat to any land.

Philippe was about 390 miles east of the Leeward Islands of
the Caribbean. It was moving on a north-northwest track that
would take it through the open Atlantic for the next few days.

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