More than two million people were told to flee from the path of 110 mph Hurricane Charley as it roared toward Florida’s west coast tonight.
A Florida air base that is home to US Central Command, the nerve centre of the war in Iraq, was ordered to be evacuated with only essential staff remaining. Officials feared that Charley would leave it underwater.
The storm was expected to strengthen and hit the Tampa Bay area today, dumping heavy rain and possibly spawning tornadoes. Many streets in the city were deserted after workers were told to stay at home.
Officials worried that a massive storm surge could devastate the heavily populated Gulf Coast region, with waterfront apartment towers and vulnerable mobile homes in danger.
Charley’s outer bands were dropping rain on south-western Florida, a few hours after bringing occasionally heavy wind and rain to the lower Keys as the storm’s centre passed to the west. Only minor damage was immediately reported.
Shortly before noon, Governor Jeb Bush urged residents who had not left home yet to stay put.
“This is not the time to be getting on the interstate (motorway). It is time to seek a safe place to be with family and friends inside of your region,” Bush said.
Bush said he had sought a federal disaster declaration from President George Bush, his brother.
In the early hours, Charley had raced across Cuba, ripping apart roofs, downing power lines and yanking up huge palm trees and battering Havana with high wind and heavy rain. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The hurricane was arriving a day after Tropical Storm Bonnie came ashore in the Florida Panhandle and quickly moved north. Three people, including a child, were killed and 29 injured today when a tornado hit a North Carolina trailer park.
About 6.5 million of Florida’s 17 million residents were in Charley’s projected path, including about 700,000 elderly people, officials said.
By 8 a.m., a shelter at Sickles High School in north-western Tampa, where two million people had been advised to evacuate, was full to its capacity of 500. Windows had been reinforced with screens and tarpaulins to prepare for the storm.
“I’m scared that we’re going to go home and nothing is going to be there,” 20-year-old Amanda Kellogg said as she played cards with four friends, their suitcases, bedding and other possessions piled beside them.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the major theme park nearest to the storm’s path, did not open today, and workers were posted outside to turn guests away. In Orlando, about 80 miles inland, Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando planned to close in the early afternoon.
About 1.9 million people from the Florida Keys north through the west coast were advised to evacuate, although only 1.1 million to 1.5 million were expected to do so before the storm hits, said Kristy Campbell, spokeswoman at the state emergency management centre.
The evacuation request was Florida’s biggest since 1999, when Hurricane Floyd prompted an order for a record 1.3 million people to evacuate the state’s east coast. Charley’s evacuation could break that record, said Craig Fugate, the state’s emergency management director.
Most of the evacuations were in the counties of Hillsborough, which contains Tampa, and Pinellas, a peninsula that contains St. Petersburg.
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 3,” Nelson said. “In a Category 3, you can almost get to the point where Pinellas County becomes an island.”
Gary Vickers, Pinellas’ emergency management chief, told people in evacuation zones there would 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,” he said.