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Fay sends Keys' tourists packing

Deadly storm expected to reach FL Monday, shelters plan Sunday night opening, governor declares state of emergency activating National Guard.

MIAMI | August 17, 2008

"Residents should use this weekend to make preparations for Fay's potential impact"

—Craig Fugate, Florida Emergency Management Agency

Hurricane watches have been posted in the Florida Keys and much of the southwestern Florida coast as the state prepares for the expected arrival Monday of a tropical storm that has already killed six people.

Tropical Storm Fay is expected to become at least a Category 1 hurricane before it reaches the southwestern Florida coast Monday night or Tuesday.

In preparation for the storm, tourists in the Florida Keys were ordered to leave Sunday morning and Monroe County was set to open shelters Sunday night. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Saturday, activating the National Guard.

Some southern Florida pupils who are scheduled to start school Monday, may get a reprieve depending upon the strength and track of the storm. School officials in Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties said they would make a decision Sunday afternoon.

On Sunday morning the center of the tropical storm was just south of Cuba and is predicted to drop four to eight inches of rain over much of Cuba, Jamaica and the northern Cayman Islands. But according to the National Hurricane Center, the storm could produce as much as 15-inches in some locations. Flash floods and mud slides can be expected in those areas.

Six people have already been killed by the storm as it passed across the Dominican Republic and Haiti where widespread flooding was reported.

Forecasters from the National Hurricane Center said they expect the storm to become a hurricane before crossing Cuba Sunday night or 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 Category 1 or Category 2 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 Sunday that the track and intensity of the storm was still very uncertain and may depend how long it remains over water.

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 hug the western coast of Florida 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. "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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