Florida braces for two hurricanes

Storms are bearing down on Panhandle and Keys

The Nation

August 12, 2004|By John-Thor Dahlburg and Rennie Sloan | John-Thor Dahlburg and Rennie Sloan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FORT MYERS, Fla. - As rare back-to-back tropical storms - one a hurricane, the other likely to become one - churned toward Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a statewide emergency and mobilized the National Guard yesterday. Tourists were told to evacuate the low-lying Florida Keys.

"Tomorrow's going to be an interesting day, to say the least," said Ben Nelson, state meteorologist for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. In 150 years of reliable storm data, he said, there was no precedent for two hurricanes striking Florida in such rapid succession.

The smaller storm, Bonnie, was forecast to make landfall in the already rain-soaked Panhandle of northern Florida this morning.

Charley became a hurricane yesterday and is still growing in strength. It was expected to hit or pass near the Lower Keys today. Charley was forecast to have winds of 85-105 mph and crash ashore early tomorrow on the Gulf Coast somewhere between Sarasota and Fort Myers.

"Right now, we're the bull's-eye on the target," said Gordon "Booch" DeMarchi, a spokesman for Lee County government in Fort Myers, home to 500,000 people. Throughout the day, Lee County officials met in a windowless bunker well inland to discuss how to deal with what would be the area's first hurricane in 44 years.

In the Keys, a 100-mile-long archipelago popular with anglers, divers and tourists, emergency officials told visitors from the Dry Tortugas to Ocean Reef to get out. Cars streamed north through the day on the only road leading to the mainland.

According to National Hurricane Center forecasters, Charley, moving at 17 mph and measuring about 200 miles in diameter, was expected to make landfall in Jamaica late yesterday and could traverse Cuba early today on its projected path to Florida's western coast.

Bonnie is chugging northeastward in the Gulf of Mexico at about 12 mph. It had maximum sustained winds of 65 mph and could reach official hurricane strength - sustained winds of at least 74 mph - early today.

Bonnie was forecast to make landfall between Panama City and Apalachicola this morning and could soak the Panhandle with 4 to 6 inches of rain.

So much precipitation, he said, could trigger localized flooding, and state officials said some low-lying areas along Florida's northwest coast might have to be evacuated.

The two storm systems also could cause wind and water damage far inland. Charley was expected to remain at hurricane force as it crosses Florida tomorrow and emerges into the Atlantic south of St. Augustine.

Dahlburg reported from Fort Myers, Sloan from Atlanta. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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