MIAMI — Tourists and even some residents began to evacuate the Florida Keys on Tuesday as Hurricane Georges continued on a path that could bring the storm over the U.S. coastline later this week.
"While we hate to interrupt Keys vacation plans, the fact of the matter is we have a responsibility for our guests and need their cooperation to temporarily leave the area," said Billy Wagner, director of emergency management operations for Monroe County, which includes the island string connected by a single 110-mile road.
In Key West, workers boarded up City Hall, and county schools canceled today's classes.
"I went through [Hurricane] Andrew, and I don't want to do that again," said Debrah Bennett, who wasted no time leaving her Plantation Key home to move into a friend's vacant home in Miami. "I live on the water, and with a storm that strong coming, it's time to figure out a game plan."
After causing at least 21 deaths and widespread property damage in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Leeward Islands, Hurricane Georges was expected to move into the poor nation of Haiti early today with top sustained winds of 80 mph to 90 mph. Around the eye is a broad swirl of bad weather, with hurricane-force winds extending 60 miles from the center.
The storm is expected to strengthen again as it moves back over warm water today.
At least four of the storm's victims died in Puerto Rico, which for more than six hours was whipped by winds stronger than 100 mph, with gusts as great as 130 mph. Electric power was knocked out for virtually all 3.8 million residents of the U.S. commonwealth, and water was shut off nearly everywhere.
In San Juan, the capital, streets were strewn with tree limbs, windows were smashed and many residential areas were flooded. In the east coast town of Humacao, 4 feet of water poured into the municipal office building. The police headquarters in the central city of Caguas was destroyed. Mudslides buried streets in Ponce on the south coast, and flooding was reported in the north coast towns of Barceloneta and Arecibo.
"We are starting from ground zero," said Gov. Pedro Rossello, who warned islanders Monday that they were about to be hit with the strongest storm to threaten the area in decades. Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were declared disaster areas, making them eligible for federal aid.
From Puerto Rico, the storm moved over the narrow Mona Passage and directly into the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. A sudden southward turn in the storm's track seemed to catch many in the capital city of Santo Domingo unprepared. Emergency shelters were not opened until midmorning Tuesday, and through the day people streamed in for refuge even as the hurricane's winds battered the city.
As darkness neared, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez told citizens that the island's fate was in God's hands. "For the moment, the only thing left for us to do is to raise our prayers to the Almighty," he said.
The westward march of Hurricane Georges is being monitored with mounting anxiety in South Florida, which has not been menaced by a major tropical cyclone since 1992, when Andrew became the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history. Damage was estimated at more than $30 billion.
Through much of Tuesday, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center insisted that they could see no atmospheric roadblocks that would prevent Georges from slamming into some stretch of the Florida coastline, anywhere from Key West to Fort Pierce, with the upper Florida Keys the most likely target.
Later in the day, however, new projections generated by computers suggested that Georges could opt for a course farther south and hug the north shore of Cuba. A path over land could further weaken the storm, likely sparing South Florida major damage.
"We'd love to see a more southerly track," said Max Mayfield, deputy director of the hurricane center. "But it hasn't made that commitment yet."
Hurricane warnings remained in effect for the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the southern Bahamas and eastern and central Cuba. Mayfield said a hurricane watch--meaning the storm was 36 to 48 hours away--could be posted for parts of Florida today.
With one way out, and with land elevations just inches above sea level, the Florida Keys are particularly vulnerable.
But it was not only Keys residents who have been rushing to prepare. All across South Florida, shoppers crammed supermarkets for water, food and batteries, and homeowners lined up at hardware stores for lumber to board up windows.
"My husband, Stephen, is down at the house now pulling boats out of the water and closing up the homes of people who only live there part-time," Bennett said. "But I just wanted to get out. When you have lived for days without water and electricity after a hurricane, you just don't want to do it again."
Meanwhile, two other storms trailing Georges seemed less of a threat to land. Hurricane Jeanne was well out in the Atlantic, moving west from the Cape Verde Islands with top winds of 80 mph. Tropical Storm Ivan was headed north into the open ocean.
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.