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Florida braces for a one-two punch

MIAMI -- Florida braced for an unprecedented double dose of hurricanes expected today, ordering Florida Keys visitors to get out of Hurricane Charley's path and preparing for possible flooding as Tropical Storm Bonnie approached the already soaked Panhandle.

Bonnie, which was approaching hurricane strength yesterday, was forecast to hit the state early today, at least 12 hours earlier than Charley. The prospect of back-to-back hurricanes prompted Governor Jeb Bush to declare a state of emergency for all of Florida as schools and government offices announced closures and forecasters warned residents to prepare for the worst.

Getting hit by two named storms in a 24-hour period would be a first for Florida. In 2000, Tropical Storm Helene hit Pensacola less than a week after Tropical Storm Gordon hit Cedar Key.

The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch -- meaning hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours -- for most of northwest Florida, from the Alabama border to the Suwannee River, because of Bonnie.

Charley prompted a hurricane watch for the Keys from Dry Tortugas to Ocean Reef, an area that includes Key West and Key Largo. Watches also were issued for the southwestern Florida mainland from Flamingo to just north of Naples, and for Jamaica and western Cuba. A more urgent hurricane warning was issued for the Cayman Islands.

Charley, which grew to hurricane strength around midday yesterday, was forecast to hit or pass close to the lower Keys late today, then hit the southwestern Florida mainland early tomorrow with winds of 85 to 105 miles per hour.

Monroe County emergency officials told visitors to evacuate the entire 100-mile-long island chain. The trip can take several hours because there's only one road, the Overseas Highway, from Key West to Key Largo and only two linking Key Largo to the mainland. Residents were not being told to leave.

Lisa Kaminski, a manager at a Days Inn in Key West, was telling the hotel's 200 guests they had to leave, as well as warning those with reservations.

''We're telling people that the hurricane will probably be here Friday and it's in their best interest not to come," she said.

The Key West native said she and her employees weren't too worried about Charley, though: ''We're staying. This isn't a big one."

Officials in Collier County, which contains Naples, were requesting the voluntary evacuation of residents and tourists in coastal areas, emergency services spokesman John Torre said.

The governor activated the Florida National Guard and said more evacuations may be needed. Public schools were scheduled to be closed today and tomorrow in the Keys, while schools and government offices were to be closed today in parts of the Panhandle.

At 5 p.m. yesterday, Charley had top sustained winds of about 75 miles per hour and was expected to strengthen. It was centered about 85 miles southwest of Kingston, Jamaica, and moving west-northwest at 17 miles per hour. It was forecast to hit Jamaica later yesterday and could hit western Cuba early today.

Charley was expected to remain at hurricane force when it passes over central Florida, but could go anywhere from Miami to the Panhandle, forecasters said.

Bonnie, at 5 p.m. yesterday, was centered about 165 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving northeast at around 12 miles per hour. Bonnie was expected to turn northeast and speed up during the day, forecasters said.

The storm could dump 4 to 6 inches of rain, forecaster Daniel Brown said.

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