Temporarily strengthening into the season's first hurricane yesterday, Ernesto moved toward Florida, putting the Keys under the gun and threatening to bring torrential rain, wind and tornadoes to South Florida tomorrow and Wednesday.
Visitors were ordered to leave the Keys yesterday, and Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency.
"It certainly looks like it's going to impact a significant portion of Florida before it's all over," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Late yesterday, Ernesto was about 85 miles southeast of Guantanamo, Cuba, moving northwest at 8 mph, with sustained winds of 60 mph. The storm was about 540 miles southeast of Miami.
The tropical system threatens heavy rain, a storm surge of up to 6 feet and large waves along its path. It was pelting Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica yesterday. Tropical storm conditions were forecast for South Florida starting tomorrow and possibly lasting into Thursday, said Robert Molleda, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Miami.
"Even with weaker systems, we can get very heavy rainfall -- torrential rains from these tropical systems," said Molleda, who noted that Hurricane Irene crossed the state in 1999 as a minimal hurricane but dumped up to 15 inches of rain in parts of South Florida.
Hurricane force gusts, tornadoes and storm surges loom as potential problems for the region, depending on the track of the storm, Molleda said. Emergency managers across South Florida were to go on high alert today.
At a news conference yesterday afternoon, Broward County Mayor Ben Graber asked residents to activate their hurricane plans by checking supplies, filling up their gas tanks and talking to their children about what might happen.
"It's not time to be boarding up your windows," he said. "It's time to make sure you're ready."
If Ernesto stays on its track, the Broward Emergency Management Agency was to begin activating its emergency plan this morning, said Tony Carper, the agency's director. He said he expected that his staff would be working around the clock by this evening.
While expected to grow in size as it strengthens, Ernesto's core was compact yesterday, with tropical storm-force winds extending 115 miles from its center.
Forecasters predicted that the storm will hit Cuba's southeast coast with 75-mph winds this morning, roll over the lower Keys as a minimal hurricane early Wednesday and emerge in the Gulf of Mexico.
Projections yesterday did not show Ernesto hitting Mississippi's Gulf Coast or New Orleans, which were struck by Hurricane Katrina a year ago tomorrow in one of the nation's worst natural disasters.
Yesterday, a hurricane watch was posted for the Keys, and emergency managers issued evacuation orders for tourists and mobile home residents. A hurricane warning and further evacuations were expected today. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection closed state parks in Monroe County.
Ernesto was expected to remain about 50 miles off the southwest coast of Florida and move toward Tampa-St. Petersburg, an area vulnerable to flooding, on Thursday morning.
Ernesto was expected to grow into a Category 1 storm by landfall, but given the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it could become a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, forecasters said.
That is what happened in August 2004, when Hurricane Charley was initially forecast to hit Tampa, intensified rapidly into a Category 4 storm and made an unexpected turn into Punta Gorda.
Mayfield said he wants to avoid a repeat of what happened during Hurricane Charley, when many residents were caught unprepared when the storm turned.
"I can assure that there will be an impact well to the east from Ernesto's winds and rain," Mayfield said.
If projections hold, Ernesto would track northeast across central and northern Florida, emerging in the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville as a tropical storm Friday morning.
"The feature that's going to determine where Ernesto goes is an upper-level disturbance over the United States," said Mike Brennan, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center. "The timing and strength of that system will determine when Ernesto turns right; that will determine what part of Florida sees the most impact from the system."
Ken Kaye and Josh Frank write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The Associated Press contributed to this article.