KEY LARGO - Tourists and mobile-home residents began fleeing the Florida Keys yesterday as Hurricane Ivan, the third storm to threaten the state in a month, took aim at the fragile island chain and perhaps the mainland as well.
The specter of a triple whammy worried Gov. Jeb Bush, who said that, beyond preparation, there was but one thing to do.
"We can all pray," he said in Tallahassee. "And I intend to do some praying tonight that it redirects itself."
After leaving the tiny spice island of Grenada in ruins, Ivan was on course to pound Jamaica today and pummel Cuba tomorrow.
From there, Ivan was expected to slow down over the weekend, becoming less predictable and prolonging the anxiety of a state still struggling to recover from back-to-back Hurricanes Charley and Frances.
But the dangerous storm, which had winds near 150 mph last night, is expected to weaken over Cuba's mountainous terrain before entering the Florida Strait. And late yesterday it appeared to be edging on a more westerly track that could take it into the Gulf of Mexico.
"Florida is definitely in the picture," said Chris Hennon, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center west of Miami. "It's definitely within the realm of possibility it will impact someplace in Florida."
Forecasters could not say where, when or even whether Hurricane Ivan would make landfall in Florida, but yesterday forecast models showed the Keys engulfed in Ivan's cone of uncertainty.
And after spending the day crunching gears between a powerful Category 4 and Category 5, the storm caught the attention of even the most hardy citizens of what's sometimes called the Conch Republic.
"From what I understand, a majority of people will leave this time because they've seen what happened with Charley and Frances," said Irene Toner, director of Monroe County's Emergency Management Office.
In fact, yesterday, many islanders were buttoning up their homes. Among them was Terry Schricker, 53, a retired electrical engineer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He said he spent half his life flying into the most ferocious storms with hurricane hunters who collect data for research and forecasts.
"Andrew was the first major hurricane I experienced on the ground, and I tell you what, I'd rather see them from the air," Schricker said as he packed his station wagon with belongings from his mobile home in Key Largo.
Scott Silverson, 41, a lawyer who moved alone to a new job in the Keys a year ago, was packing his SUV for the commute back to his family in Orlando, a journey that took him 14 hours before Frances' outer winds slapped the islands last week.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.