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FL readies for storm

Just when Florida was feeling a touch of relief, Ernesto changed it all.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 27, 2006

Just when Florida was feeling a touch of relief, Ernesto changed it all.

By Sunday, Ernesto was projected to veer significantly east of original predictions. After a projected Thursday landfall near Fort Myers or Tampa, the storm could cut northeast across Florida.

The storm had 75-mph winds through Sunday afternoon, making it a Category 1 hurricane. By 5 p.m., Ernesto was downgraded back to a tropical storm. The National Hurricane Center noted that the mountainous terrain of Haiti disrupted Ernesto's circulation.

But by the time it appears west of Florida - likely sometime Thursday - some forecasts say the storm could be a Category 2 or Category 3 hurricane. Others say it will not grow more menacing than a Category 1.

Given Ernesto's behavior patterns, it's up in the air. There is still room for quite a bit of error in predictions, forecasters said.

Regardless, Floridians were urged to prepare and visitors to the Florida Keys were ordered to leave Sunday afternoon.

Without much deviation from current predicted tracks, Ernesto could also take a direct pass across southern Florida or the Florida Keys. Those areas could see wind and rain by early Tuesday. A tropical storm watch could be issued for the Keys as early as Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

As of Sunday, New Orleans appeared to be outside of the cone of danger. But forecasters pointed out that Ernesto's potential path has fluctuated dramatically over the past few days. From Louisiana to Florida, many states were preparing evacuation plans and warning residents to be aware of where the storm is headed.

For those in Louisiana and Mississippi, this could increase anxiety for many residents who will observe the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Haiti was in Ernesto's path on Sunday. Officials there were concerned about deadly mudslides. A hurricane warning was issued for the southern coast of Haiti, and residents in low-lying areas of the city of Gonaives were evacuated on Sunday. This was the same area hit by Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004, when 3,000 people died. The Dominican Republic could receive up to 20 inches of rain, forecasters said.

Jamaica also warned residents in low-lying areas to be prepared to evacuate.

Ernesto is the first hurricane of the Atlantic season, and the fifth named storm of the season.

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