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Floridians Bracing for the Arrival of Back-to-Back Tropical Storms

Gov. Bush declares an emergency, mobilizes the Guard as Bonnie and Charley bear down on the state. "We're the bull's-eye," official says.

August 12, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg and Rennie Sloan | Times Staff Writers

FORT MYERS, Fla. — As rare back-to-back tropical storms -- one a hurricane, the other likely to become one -- churned Wednesday toward Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a statewide emergency and mobilized the National Guard. Tourists were told to evacuate the low-lying Florida Keys.

"Today is going to be an interesting day, to say the least," said Ben Nelson, meteorologist for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. In 150 years of reliable storm data, he said, there was no known precedent for two hurricanes striking Florida in such rapid succession.

The smaller storm, Bonnie, is forecast to make landfall in the already rain-soaked Panhandle of northern Florida this morning.

Charley became a hurricane Wednesday and was still growing in strength. It is expected to hit or pass near the Lower Keys late today. Charley is forecast to pack winds of 85 to 105 mph and crash ashore early Friday on the Gulf Coast somewhere between Sarasota and Fort Myers.

"Right now, we're the bull's-eye on the target," said Gordon "Booch" DeMarchi, a spokesman for Lee County government in Fort Myers, home to about 500,000 people. Throughout the day, Lee County officials met in a windowless bunker well inland to discuss how to deal with what would be the area's first hurricane in 44 years.

"Most of our citizens probably underestimate a hurricane," said DeMarchi. "They have never lived through one."

In the Keys, a 100-mile-long archipelago popular with anglers, divers and tourists, emergency officials told visitors from the Dry Tortugas to Ocean Reef to get out, and cars streamed northward throughout the day on the solitary road leading to the mainland.

"Most of the tourists have left town, so this evening there won't be any business, and tomorrow there won't be any," said Eric Adams, manager of a Key West company that organized a pub crawl of some of the island's most celebrated saloons.

For some locals on the laid-back island, there was no good reason -- yet -- to panic.

"We're not taking it too serious right now; we're sort of seeing what's going to happen in the next 24 hours," said Kurt Pasqualle, manager of the Lazy Gecko, a Key West eatery specializing in frozen daiquiris and deli sandwiches.

"We've had a couple of storms come up this way before, and they usually hit Cuba and dismantle."

According to National Hurricane Center forecasters, Charley, moving at 17 mph and measuring about 200 miles in diameter, sped by Jamaica late Wednesday and took aim at the Cayman Islands and Cuba on its projected path to Florida's western coast. Rainfall of up to 6 inches caused flooding and mudslides in some villages of eastern Jamaica, but there were no reports of casualties.

Bonnie is chugging northeastward in the Gulf of Mexico at about 12 mph. It had maximum sustained wind of 65 mph, and could reach official hurricane strength -- meaning sustained wind of at least 74 mph -- early today, forecasters said.

Bonnie is forecast to make landfall somewhere between Panama City and Apalachicola late this morning, and could soak the Panhandle with an additional 4 to 6 inches of rain.

"That part of the world tends to be flat as a pancake," said Frank Lepore, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

So much precipitation, he said, could trigger localized flooding, and state officials said some low-lying areas along Florida's northwestern coast might have to be evacuated.

The two storm systems could also cause wind and water damage far inland. Charley is expected to remain at hurricane force as it crosses the Florida peninsula Friday -- dumping 3 to 6 inches of rain in its path -- and emerges into the Atlantic, somewhere south of St. Augustine if the latest predictions are accurate.

In an executive order signed Wednesday morning, Bush said the twin storms threatened Florida with "a major disaster," and declared a state of emergency, which empowered state officials to order evacuations. The governor also ordered the mobilization of the Florida National Guard "for the duration of the emergency."

In the Keys, public schools were closed for the rest of the week. In some parts of the Panhandle, schools and government offices were not to reopen until Bonnie had passed. In Collier County, south of Fort Myers, officials advised residents and tourists in coastal areas to seek higher ground.

From the Keys to the Gulf Coast, Floridians were laying in supplies, boarding up windows and making other hurricane preparations.

At Baby's Coffee, at Mile Marker 15 on the Overseas Highway north of Key West, employees were putting up the storm shutters, chastened by memories of the damage caused when Hurricane Georges passed nearby in 1998. Owner Gary Teplitsky said the store was jammed with people stocking up on groceries, including pizza sauce, wine and coffee.

"We tell people to make sure you get your coffee ground, because if there's no electricity, you have to use the old mortar and pestle," Teplitsky said.

Dahlburg reported from Fort Myers, Sloan from Atlanta.

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