Stronger Tropical Storm Fay crosses Keys
Expected to lash Fla. Gulf Coast as a hurricane
KEY WEST, Fla. - Two years since a hurricane last lashed at Florida, many residents were taking a wait-and-see attitude yesterday as a strengthening Tropical Storm Fay swept across the Florida Keys and bore down on the Gulf Coast.
While tourists caught the last flight out of town and headed out of the storm's path, residents in the carefree Florida Keys were putting up hurricane shutters and checking their generators, but not doing much more.
"We're not worried about it. We've seen this movie before," said Willie Dykes, 58, who lives on a sailboat in Key West and was buying food, water, and whiskey.
By evening, locals and some tourists returned to the streets of Key West after the worst of the storm system passed the lower Keys, leaving the islands drenched but largely unscathed.
The sixth named storm in the Atlantic hurricane season was expected to become a hurricane before curling up the state's western coast and hitting Florida's mainland sometime today.
"There are bad storms and there are nice ones, and this is a nice one," said Becky Weldon, 43, a guest house manager in Key West. "It cleans out all the trees, it gives people a little work to do and it gets the tourists out of here for a few days."
Officials were worried that complacency could cost lives, repeatedly urging people across the state to take Fay seriously.
The message got through to tourists - Mayor Mario Di Gennaro of Monroe County estimated 25,000 fled the Keys.
Some residents have taken steps since the busy 2004-05 storm years, when eight hurricanes hammered Florida, such as buying generators and strengthening homes, but not everyone is as prepared.
"This is not the type of storm that's going to rip off a lot of roofs or cause the type of damage we normally see in a large hurricane," said Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management chief.
However, Fugate said: "I've seen as many people die when I have a blob-shaped asymmetrical storm that they dismiss as not being very dangerous."
The state took every step to make sure it was ready. National Guard troops were at the ready and more were waiting in reserve, and 20 truckloads of tarps, 200 truckloads of water and 52 truckloads of food had arrived.
One who did heed the call to prepare was Chris Fleeman, a 35-year-old mechanic on Big Pine Key who was busy helping friends and family members seal up their homes.
"I've got a generator and I've got a concrete home that I built myself, so I know it can withstand this," Fleeman said.
In Haiti, two babies were killed when a river surging with rain from Tropical Storm Fay toppled their overcrowded bus, a UN official said yesterday, raising the storm's Caribbean death toll to at least 14.
UN peacekeepers arrived at the scene and confirmed that 41 passengers made it out safely, contrary to earlier reports that at least 30-50 passengers were feared dead, said Fred Blaise, a spokesman for the United Nations police force in Haiti.
Since 2006, Florida has taken several steps to make sure its residents are prepared. More than 400,000 houses were inspected under a program that provides grants to people to strengthen their houses.
Florida law also now requires some 970 gas stations along hurricane evacuation routes statewide to have backup generators so they can keep pumping gas if the power goes out. Many utilities also have installed stronger power poles.
"Every hurricane that we have, we have additional lessons learned and experience," said US Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.
The storm center passed over the Key West around 5 p.m. yesterday, and a hurricane warning was in effect along southwestern Florida from Flamingo to just south of the Tampa Bay area. A tropical storm warning in effect in the east from Flagler Beach southward.
At 11 p.m., Fay was about 60 miles south of Naples and moving north. Sustained winds were about 60 miles per hour with some higher gusts. National Hurricane Center officials said the storm would likely make landfall sometime this morning.
Forecasters said Fay would probably be at or near hurricane strength, which is winds of at least 74 miles per hour.
No damage or injuries were immediately reported in the Keys. There were scattered power outages as well as street flooding.
Between 4 and 10 inches of rain is possible across mainland Florida, so flooding is a threat even far from where the center comes ashore, said Stacy Stewart of the National Hurricane Center.