Lower Keys evacuated for Dennis

Hurricane threatens wind of 115 mph, 3-foot storm surge along Fla. islands

July 08, 2005|By John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

COCOA, Fla. - Officials ordered all residents and tourists to leave the southern half of the Florida Keys yesterday as Hurricane Dennis, an unusually powerful July storm, attained "major" status as it slogged north in warm Caribbean waters.

Packing sustained winds of 115 mph and classified as a Category 3 hurricane, Dennis could subject the lower Keys to dangerous winds and a 3- to 6-foot storm surge by this afternoon, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

"We recommend you pack up, secure your property as best you can and leave," Monroe County Sheriff's Deputy Becky Herrin said her department advised those in the southernmost Keys.

The evacuation order covered a 49-mile sweep of the low-lying island chain, from south of Marathon to Key West. Between 30,000 and 35,000 people were affected, Herrin said: "They're being told to get out now."

All tourists in the 100-mile- long archipelago, which has only one road link to the Florida peninsula, were told to start leaving by noon yesterday. Those staying at the northern tip of Key Largo were exempt.

"As of right now, we're sitting tight, boarding up and asking our guests to leave," Lisa Ferguson, front desk clerk at the Wicker Guesthouse in Key West, said in the late afternoon. "And trying hard to stay calm."

Last year, when hurricanes were blamed for at least 123 deaths in Florida and more than $40 billion in property losses, three evacuations were ordered in the Keys.

"It's getting tiresome," Ferguson said yesterday afternoon. "It's 89 with a blue sky and a light breeze - a beautiful beach day."

Last night Dennis' center was about 135 miles west-southwest of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or roughly 500 miles south-southeast of Miami, and moving northwest at 15 mph.

"This one means business," said Eric Blake, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "These are the types of systems that can cause significant damage."

Data indicated the storm might intensify to a Category 4 on the five-point Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, with winds of 131 to 155 mph.

Such a hurricane "can really cause disastrous damage," Blake said.

Although it was still early to tell where Dennis might make landfall in the United States, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center advised residents of the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida to monitor the storm's advance.

The lower Florida Keys were placed under a hurricane warning yesterday, which meant winds of at least 74 mph were expected within the next 24 hours.

Last year, Florida was pounded by an unprecedented four hurricanes and, Blake said, signs were pointing to an eventful 2005. The hurricane season began June 1 and runs through the end of November. This year there have already been four storms - Arlene, Bret, Cindy and Dennis - with winds intense enough to merit their being given names.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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