Around a million residents and tourists have been warned to leave parts of Florida over fears that Tampa and other parts of the west coast could be submerged by the massive storm surge when Hurricane Charley strikes the state’s central gulf coast today.
“It does have the potential of devastating impact. This is a scary, scary thing,” Florida governor Jeb Bush said yesterday.
The evacuation zone stretched along Florida’s west coast from Key West to north of Tampa.
Charley was expected to pass west of the Keys at Florida’s tip early today before hitting the Tampa Bay area in the afternoon with winds up to 110mph, heavy rain, sporadic tornadoes and the dangerous storm surge, said Hugh Cobb, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami. With winds that high, it would be a powerful Category Three hurricane.
Residents of the Tampa Bay area, where the eye is projected to hit, south to the Naples area were told to expect a storm surge of 10-13 feet. State meteorologist Ben Nelson said the surge could reach 16 feet in the Tampa area if Charley hit at 120mph.
The bulk of the evacuations were in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which include Tampa and St Petersburg, a city that sits on a peninsula.
All residents of MacDill Air Force Base, on another peninsula in Tampa Bay, were ordered out, with only essential personnel remaining. MacDill is home to US Central Command, the nerve centre of the war in Iraq.
“MacDill Air Force Base will probably be mostly underwater and parts of downtown Tampa could be underwater if we have a Category Three,” Nelson said. “In a Category Three, you can almost get to the point where Pinellas County becomes an island.”
Heavy traffic flowed across the three Tampa Bay bridges linking Pinellas with Hillsborough and the mainland
“There will be a period of time where if you stay behind and you change your mind and you want to be rescued, no-one can help you. We aren’t going to go out on a suicide mission,” Pinellas Emergency Management Chief Gary Vickers told people in the evacuation zone.
The hurricane bore down after Tropical Storm Bonnie blew ashore yesterday on the Florida Panhandle with winds estimated near 50mph (80 kph). Bonnie failed to produce any reported flooding, but the one-two punch of tropical weather was highly unusual. Storms have not struck so close together in Florida since 1906.
About 6.5 million of Florida’s 17 million residents were in Charley’s projected path, the US Census Bureau reported.
The evacuation request was Florida’s biggest since 1999, when Hurricane Floyd brushed the state’s east coast and prompted officials to urge a record 1.3 million to evacuate.
Charley became a Caribbean hurricane on Wednesday, moving past Jamaica and over the British Cayman Islands territory. At 8pm (1am Irish time yesterday), it was about 90 miles south of Havana, Cuba.
Forecasters said Charley had become a Category Two hurricane with top sustained winds of about 105mph, up from 90mph earlier. It was moving north-north west near 17mph and was expected to strengthen, meteorologists said.
Charlie skirted around Cuba’s small Isle of Youth last night and was expected to turn towards the north, putting it on a straight track for the Cuban capital on its way to Florida.