Officials today ordered residents to evacuate from the lower Florida Keys as a strengthening Tropical Storm Rita headed toward the island chain, threatening to grow into a hurricane with a potential eight-foot storm surge.
The evacuation covered 40,000 people living from below Marathon to Key West. Visitors were ordered to clear out of the entire length of the low-lying Keys, which are connected by just one highway.
The weather was clear this morning but expected to deteriorate through the day with the approach of Rita’s outermost bands of rain.
Hurricane warnings were posted for the Keys and Miami-Dade County, Florida, and the storm’s eye was expected to pass between the islands and Cuba on Tuesday.
Rita, which strengthened yesterday into a tropical storm, had sustained wind of 65 mph by late morning, up from 60mph earlier in the day, and could be a Category 1 hurricane by the time it passes the Keys, the National Hurricane Centre said.
By the weekend, computer models projected that it could be in the north-west Gulf of Mexico near Texas, but people in areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina were warned it could veer in their direction instead. Katrina crossed South Florida into the Gulf last month, killing 11 people, before it turned north to Louisiana and Mississippi.
Key West streets were quiet this morning as Mike Pettengill, 54, packed his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A resident of Stuart, Florida, he hoped to beat the rain and traffic heading north and wanted to be able to find petrol before stations close or run dry.
“We walked by a bar and heard there was an evacuation. We were totally shocked. I couldn’t believe it. Where did it come from?” he said.
Kelly Friend and two workers were boarding up her store in Key West, Audio Video in Paradise, and painted a message on the plywood: “Hey bartender 1 Rita on the rocks to go!”
“Not that we’re afraid of the hurricane, but we want to protect our investment,” Friend said. “Plus it gives us an excuse to take a day off and drink.”
The state was sending a National Guard cargo plane to evacuate 22 patients from Key West’s hospital to Sebring, near Lake Okeechobee, Florida. Several critically ill patients already had been evacuated to hospitals in Miami.
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. That makes this season already the fourth busiest since record-keeping began in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933.
Six to 15 inches of rain was possible in the Keys, with 3 to 5 inches possible across southern Florida. A storm surge rising 6 to 8 feet above normal tide levels was predicted for the Keys.
“Right now the biggest concern is the Keys,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami.
Florida Gov Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency.
Many schools were closed in the Bahamas on today as Rita’s rain and wind moved through the islands.
Rita passed the Bahamas’ southern islands during the night, but residents said the storm’s outer bands didn’t appear severe.
“Last night wasn’t very bad at all,” said Samuel Miller, the commissioner of the southern island of Mayaguana.
Cuba activated its civil defence program and placed six northern provinces on cyclone alert.
At 4pm Irish time , Rita was centred about 195 miles south-east of Nassau, Bahamas, and about 430 miles east-southeast of Key West. It was moving to the west-northwest at about 12 mph according to the hurricane centre.
Four hurricanes struck Florida last year, killing dozens of people and causing £10bn (€14.8bn) in insured losses.
Hurricane Dennis brushed by the Keys in July before slamming the Florida Panhandle.
Farther out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Philippe formed late Sunday well east of the Lesser Antilles.