Tropical Storm Rita heads for Florida Keys

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) – Traffic streamed out of the vulnerable
Florida Keys on Monday as Tropical Storm Rita strengthened near
the islands and threatened to power its way into the Gulf of
Mexico three weeks after Hurricane Katrina cut a deadly path
through the region.

A Louisiana official said the levees in New Orleans, where
hundreds died after Katrina struck, would fail again if the
devastated city was smashed by a new storm surge, and oil
companies only just starting to recover from Katrina began to
evacuate oil rigs in the Gulf.

Private forecasters said there was a 40 percent chance that
damaging hurricane-force winds would directly affect key energy
production areas in the Gulf.

Rita was likely to become a major hurricane with winds of
at least 111 mph (178 kph) as it drew strength from warm Gulf
waters after passing over the Florida Keys on Tuesday,
forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami

Rita’s center was about 345 miles east-southeast of Key
West, Florida, at 5 p.m. (2100 GMT) Monday. It was racing
west-northwest at 14 mph (23 kph) and had top winds of 70 mph
(115 kph), putting it just short of hurricane strength.

The Hurricane Center cautioned the storm still could veer
north to the Miami metropolitan area, home to 2.3 million
people. Miami-Dade County officials urged residents to evacuate
mobile homes, barrier islands and flood-prone areas, and long
lines formed at gas stations as motorists filled their tanks.

Authorities in the Keys, a 110-mile (177-km) chain of
islands connected to the southern tip of Florida by a single
two-lane highway, ordered all 80,000 residents out by

Authorities designated both lanes northbound to speed the
evacuation and a steady stream of traffic headed out of the
Keys. Public buses ferried out those who lacked transportation.

Rita could drench the Keys with up to 15 inches of rain and
send a wall of seawater surging over the islands, flooding the
highway and stranding those who stayed behind.

“That’s where we’ve lost the most people over the years in
this country, from the storm surge,” Ed Rappaport, deputy
director of the hurricane center, told Miami TV station WFOR.


Military cargo planes evacuated the Keys’ three acute-care
hospitals, Gov. Jeb Bush said.

Some residents were reluctant to leave the laid-back
islands and were confident it would hit them as a Category 1,
the lowest rung on the five-step scale that measures hurricane

“The stores are all boarded up but it’s open, everybody’s
very mellow. The tourists are all gone,” said Key West resident
Christelle Orr. “We may be crazy (not to evacuate) but I mean
it’s not like Louisiana, you know, we’re not under water,” she
said as the cafe where she worked was boarded up.

Others feared the traffic more than the storm.

“If you evacuate, you’ll get stuck on the highway. I feel
safer staying at home,” said Chris Techmer, who lives in a home
on stilts on Sugarloaf Key north of Key West. “I usually stay.
I’ve been through so many hurricanes.”

Rita would be the seventh hurricane to hit Florida in the
last 13 months.

“I worry that we’ve been hit by so many storms that people
now are kind of quantifying between whether it’s a Category 1 –
‘Oh, don’t worry about that one …,”‘ Bush said. “These storms
can gain power very, very quickly and people are forewarned,
this is serious, serious business.”

A hurricane warning was issued for south Florida from just
north of Miami on the Atlantic Coast, through the Florida Keys
and up to Cape Sable on the state’s Gulf coast, alerting
residents to expect hurricane conditions within 24 hours.

Hurricane warnings were also in effect for the northwest
islands of the Bahamas and northwestern Cuba.

The Atlantic hurricane season that runs from June 1 to
November 30 produces an average of about 11 tropical storms or
hurricanes. But forecasters had predicted an unusually active
season with as many as 21 storms due to warm sea-surface
temperatures and other conditions favorable to hurricane
formation. Rita is No. 17.

Hurricane Katrina has been blamed for nearly 1,000 deaths
in six states.

(Additional reporting by Laura Myers and Michael Christie)

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