US braces for impact of double storm

TROPICAL storm Bonnie began to make landfall in Florida’s Panhandle yesterday, while residents in the Florida Keys and southwest Florida prepared to meet the stronger Hurricane Charley.

Some 380,000 Tampa Bay area residents were told to evacuate coastal or low-lying areas because of Hurricane Charley. It was the largest such evacuation in the history of Pinellas County, which includes St Petersburg.

A state of emergency was declared for all of Florida as the one-two punch of Bonnie and then Charley moved closer, the first time the state has faced such a plight in almost a century.

Schools and government offices were closed, and Governor Jeb Bush activated the Florida National Guard ahead of the storms.

Bonnie’s disorganised centre inched toward the coast with winds near 50mph, bringing with it the possibility of heavy rains and flooding to already-soaked areas of the Panhandle, which was under a tropical storm warning. To the south, a strengthening Hurricane Charley battered the Cayman Islands and forced Cuba to prepare to evacuate 200,000 people

Charley's winds accelerated to 90mph as it swept over the Caymans toward Cuba, where it was expected to pass near Havana.

Florida's popular tourist island, Key West, 90 miles north of Cuba, could see hurricane conditions today.

In the Keys, tourists were told to leave on Wednesday. The order was expanded yesterday to include mandatory evacuation of mobile homes in the lower Keys.

The Caymans capital, George Town, was virtually deserted as the worst of the storm passed over. Waves of 9-12 feet were expected to hammer the islands and floods were predicted in low-lying areas.

In Cuba, home to 11 million people, civil defence authorities issued a hurricane warning in the provinces of Pinar del Rio, Havana and Matanzas and prepared to evacuate 200,000 people. Some 2,000 tourists and hotel workers were airlifted from the Cuban island resort of Cayo Largo (Key Largo) and residents were moved from flood-prone coastal areas. Back-to-back storms so close together haven’t struck in Florida since October 17, 1906, when two tropical storms hit the state, said Ken Reeves, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather forecasting centre.

According to Hurricane Centre projections, both storms could spread rain along the East Coast after hitting Florida, and flood watches extended north to Pennsylvania and New York. For North Carolina, the heavy rain was coming just a week after Hurricane Alex damaged parts of that state’s Outer Banks. Because the Florida Panhandle is already soaked, some low-lying areas there may have to be evacuated if there’s flooding, said Craig Fugate, the state’s emergency management director.

At the Banana Starfish Cafe on the barrier island of St George, owner George Summer said he was planning on waiting out what looked like a minor storm. He said it didn’t look like Bonnie would force him to close. “So why not make coffee as long as we can.”

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