Floridians go through familiar evacuation drill

Thousands of residents fled the Florida Keys as Tropical Storm Rita barrelled toward land, poised to grow into a hurricane with a potential nine-foot storm surge and sparking fears it could eventually ravage the Gulf Coast.

Thousands of residents fled the Florida Keys as Tropical Storm Rita barrelled toward land, poised to grow into a hurricane with a potential nine-foot storm surge and sparking fears it could eventually ravage the Gulf Coast.

South Floridians kept a wary eye on Rita, which threatened to arrive today and drop up to 15 inches of rain on some parts of the low-lying island chain. Oil prices surged on the possibility that oil and petrol production would be interrupted once again.

“I’ve lived in Florida all my life,” said James Swindell, 37, who shopped along a cleared-out Miami Beach yesterday. “You always have to be worried about a storm, because they are too unpredictable and they can shift on you at the last minute. Nobody knows what they are going to do.”

In New Orleans, the mayor suspended his plan to start bringing residents back to the city after forecasters warned that Rita could follow Hurricane Katrina’s course into the Gulf of Mexico and shatter his city’s already weakened levees.

The storm had top sustained winds of 70 mph early today, and it was expected to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane, with winds of at least 74 mph, as it approached the Keys.

“The main concern now is the Florida Keys,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami. “It’s moving over very warm water and that’s extremely favourable for development.”

Hurricane warnings were posted for the Keys and Miami-Dade County, the hurricane centre said.

Residents and visitors were ordered to clear out of the Keys, and voluntary evacuation orders were posted for some 134,000 Miami-Dade residents of coastal areas such as Miami Beach.

“We’re just trying to get enough petrol to get home,” said Andres Sweeting, 29, of Miami, as he stopped at a Coconut Grove fuel station with his family. Long lines of customers had depleted two of the station’s four petrol tanks.

Forecasters said 3 to 5 inches of rain was possible across southern Florida. A storm surge rising 6 to 9 feet above normal tide level was predicted for the Keys.

At 2am Rita was centred about 200 miles east-south-east of Key West. It was moving west-north-west near 17 mph, according to the hurricane centre.

In the Bahamas, fishermen dragged their boats to dry land and some people shuttered their windows – a sign that that normally laid-back islanders were concerned about Rita.

“After what happened to New Orleans and the Gulf area, nobody is taking this storm lightly,” said Ray Mackie, the owner of Tranquility Hill fishing lodge on Andros.

Officials in Galveston, Texas – nearly 900 miles from Key West – were already calling for a voluntary evacuation. Forecasters said Rita could make landfall in Mexico or Texas by the weekend, with a possibility that it could turn toward Louisiana.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged everyone in the south-west part of the state to prepare to evacuate. “If Rita passes us by, we will thank the Lord for our blessings,” Blanco told the state’s storm-weary residents in a televised address.

Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth-busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933. Six hurricanes have hit Florida in the past 13 months.

The last hurricane to directly hit Key West was 1998’s Hurricane Georges, which slammed the city with 105 mph winds, damaging hundreds of homes and closing the island to tourists for two weeks.

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