Visitors urged to leave Florida Keys ahead of Fay


Associated Press Writer

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) - A light stream of traffic headed out of

Key West Sunday morning as officials urged visitors to leave the

string of low-lying islands ahead of Tropical Storm Fay, which

forecasters said could strengthen to a hurricane.

Fay could start pelting parts of the Keys and South Florida late

Monday or early Tuesday as a strong tropical storm or minimal

hurricane. Keys officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for

visitors starting at 8 a.m. Sunday and asked those who had not yet

arrived to postpone their trips.

"We hate to inconvenience those visitors that had plans to be

in the Keys the next few days, but their well-being is our top

priority," said Monroe County Mayor Mario Di Gennaro, chairman of

the Keys tourist development council.

Officials said hotels and businesses won't be forced to remove

visitors, but should use common sense.

With the warnings, some Key West businesses began putting up

hurricane shutters, but tourists and residents still strolled

lazily through downtown, having coffee and eating breakfast.

"We've been living in Florida now for 10 years, so we need to

get some stuff together, but we're not going to rush out of here,"

John Civette said as he strolled the shop-lined streets with his

wife, Tonya.

Civette said they would cut their vacation short and head home

to the southwest Florida city of Bonita Springs to prepare their

home for the storm.

Paul and Sandy Dunko, of Naples, Fla., were having breakfast

with their family Sunday morning before heading home to secure

their boat and put up their hurricane shutters. Fay could reach

that area late Monday or early Tuesday.

"We've got to get back and buckle up our own house," Paul

Dunko said. "We're hoping the traffic won't be too horrible."

The sixth storm of the 2008 Atlantic season picked up some

momentum early Sunday morning as it headed toward Cuba, and could

be a hurricane by the time it reaches the island's center,

forecasters said. At 8 a.m. EDT Sunday, Fay's center was located

about 395 miles southeast of Key West and moving west-northwest at

13 miles per hour. The storm had maximum sustained winds near 50

mph with some gusting.

Flooding from Fay killed four people Saturday in the Dominican

Republic and Haiti.

Landfall could potentially be late Tuesday or early Wednesday

and it could be anywhere from the western coast to the southwestern

coast of Florida, hurricane center meteorologist Christopher

Juckins said.

Juckins said Fay's track is similar to 2004's Hurricane Charley,

a much stronger Category 4 storm.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency

Saturday as officials in Tallahassee opened their emergency

operations center.

A hurricane watch was in effect in the Keys from south of Ocean

Reef to Key West, including the Dry Tortugas and Florida Bay and on

the southern tip of the mainland from Card Sound Bridge to Bonita

Beach. A watch means hurricane conditions are possible in those

areas within 36 hours. A tropical storm watch was also in effect

for the southeast coast of Florida from Ocean Reef north to Jupiter

Inlet, as well as for Lake Okeechobee.

Keys emergency officials often take the precaution of ordering

early evacuations when a storm threatens because traffic can back

up for miles on the single highway to Florida's mainland.

Besides the threat of damage from high winds, most of the

islands sit at sea level and could be flooded by Fay's storm surge.

Key West was last seriously affected by a hurricane in 2005 when

Wilma, a Category 3 storm, sped past. The town, especially the

tourist district, escaped widespread wind damage, but a storm surge

left hundreds of homes and some businesses flooded. The deadliest

storm to hit the island was a Category 4 hurricane in 1919 that

killed up to 900 people there and elsewhere, many of them offshore

on ships that sunk.

The Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 passed over the

middle Keys with estimated wind gusts of 150 to 200 mph. It killed

more than 400 people, more than half of them World War I veterans

living in rehabilitation camps.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)