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Florida warily eyes Tropical Storm Fay

Forecasters say the sixth tropical system of the season could make landfall as a hurricane in Florida Tuesday.

BALTIMORE | August 16, 2008

Summer may stretch a little longer for some southern Florida pupils who are scheduled to start school Monday depending upon the strength and track of Tropical Storm Fay.

On Saturday evening the center of the tropical storm was moving westward between Haiti and Cuba. A hurricane watch has been posted for the Cuban provinces of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila and Sancti Spiritus.

Forecasters from the National Hurricane Center said they expect the storm to become a hurricane before crossing Cuba Monday and taking aim at the Gulf of Mexico coast of Florida.

By the time it reaches Florida, some forecasters suggest, it will be a strong Category One or barely a Category Two hurricane with winds between 75 and 95 mph. If so, it will be the strongest hurricane to hit Florida since October 2005 when Hurricane Wilma crossed southern Florida.

The current forecasted track will take the storm just west of the Florida coast or into the western Florida peninsula and north into eastern Georgia by Thursday.

However the National Hurricane Center said Saturday that the track and intensity of the storm was still very uncertain and may depend how long it remains over water.

Despite the forecast, officials for the Miami-Dade and Broward schools in southern Florida, said they were proceeding with plans to start the school year Monday.

Oil companies were not being as optimistic. Shell Oil said Saturday it was pulling 200 workers off offshore drilling platforms in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Tropical Storm Fay sprang to life over Hispaniola on Friday. Residents of Santa Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, reported Fay brought torrential rains, street flooding and blew tree debris into the streets.

The sixth Atlantic storm of this season, Fay is predicted to make landfall in Florida near Naples on Tuesday morning and hug the coast crossing through the Tampa Bay area and up toward the Panhandle near Perry.

Emergency officials are fearful that many Floridians will not take the storm seriously. Storms in the last three years that have moved through the state have been minor. Officials said many have become complacent and continue to urge residents to make preparations when a storm threatens. Even a Category One storm can cause damage and should be taken seriously, they note.

According to a recent Mason-Dixon poll, Florida residents aren't ready for a storm if one strikes. Because recent storm seasons have been relatively quiet, the study found, the majority (54 percent) don't feel as if they are vulnerable to a hurricane or to any related tornados or flooding. They also found that 56 percent of families have not put together a disaster plan and 67 percent haven't even put together a hurricane survival kit.

Perhaps even more alarming is that 13 percent of those polled said they would not, or probably would not, evacuate their homes even if they were ordered to do so by authorities.

Craig Fugate, the director of Florida's Emergency Management Agency said he is warning coastal residents to keep a close watch on the progress of the storm as she approaches the state. In the meantime, he said, they should be putting together an emergency kit and preparing to evacuate if they are warned to do so. At the very least, he said, they should be prepared for storm-related power outages and possible storm damage to their homes.

"Anytime you have tropical storms in the Gulf or Florida Straits, it's a good idea for coastal residents and marine interests to closely follow the storms' progress," Fugate said . "The current models show Tropical Storm Fay moving toward the Florida Keys and peninsula early next week. Residents should use this weekend to make preparations for Fay's potential impact early next week."

While coastal residents are being warned to take precautions for the storm, the entire Florida peninsula is within the National Weather Service's five day "cone" that shows where the storm could potentially hit. Slight variations could move the storm from its predicted course to a path that is further inland or it could cross land at a more western point in the Panhandle.

The whole state, Fugate said, has to be prepared for the storm. He said the Emergency Management Agency remains at a level 3 status, which means they are constantly monitoring the storm.

He encourages families to spend the weekend making sure they have properly stocked emergency kits.

-- Vicki DeSormier contributed to this article.

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