CLEARWATER, Fla. — With a powerful hurricane whirling toward Florida's densely populated middle Gulf Coast on Thursday, authorities ordered the largest evacuation ever in the Tampa Bay area, telling hundreds of thousands of people to seek higher ground before Hurricane Charley storms ashore sometime today.
The hurricane swept over Cuba late Thursday with high winds, a strong storm surge and heavy rain. As in Florida, many areas on the island were evacuated.
The path of the storm has changed course westward, meaning it should make landfall farther north on the Florida peninsula than originally predicted -- somewhere near Tampa and St. Petersburg, both major metropolitan areas.
Frank Lepore, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Charley's center, packing winds of at least 110 mph, should make landfallnear Clearwater.
The state had braced the day before for Tropical Storm Bonnie, which ended up moving across the state with little effect. Ben Nelson, a meteorologist with the state, described it as having "minimal winds, nothing over about 40 mph." The storm weakened into a tropical depression as it moved into southern Georgia.
"Bonnie brushed by us without being too much of a concern, but we are waiting on Charley -- it has the potential to become a Category 3 hurricane, and we are watching very closely to see what areas will be affected," said Erin Geraghty, a representative for the Florida Department of Emergency Management.
Officials said they were especially worried by the possibility of freakishly high tides, or storm surge, whipped up by Charley's potent winds. The area's last major hurricane, in 1921, caused a 10 1/2 -foot surge of water in Tampa Bay. If a storm surge that size hit today, it could cause enormous destruction because of much greater development and population.
"The storm surge is the biggest danger," said Gary Vickers, Pinellas County director of emergency management.
As Charley drew closer, evacuations were ordered along Florida's western coast. Residents of Sanibel and Captiva, slender strands off southwest Florida, were given until midnight to leave. Other wispy barrier islands to the north, in Manatee and Sarasota counties, were also ordered to evacuate. Mobile home owners in Manatee County were told to seek more secure shelter.
Gov. Jeb Bush, who declared a statewide emergency Wednesday, urged Floridians in a television interview not to take the oncoming storm lightly. He noted that meteorologists were predicting Charley would become even more potent.
"Take it seriously," said Bush, who experienced a major hurricane with his wife and children when he was a developer in the Miami area. "A Category 3 storm can be deadly."
In Pinellas County, a peninsula bound by Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, emergency officials ordered a mandatory evacuation by 6 p.m. Thursday of waterfront properties and all other neighborhoods located no more than 17 feet above sea level. It was the first so-called Category C evacuation in county history.
"There's an awful lot of people looking to move swiftly," said Maggie D. Hall, a spokeswoman for the county government. "We're anticipating a mass exodus."
Local churches and schools were to open as hurricane shelters in the evening. Marcia Crowley, Pinellas County director of communications, said it was the largest evacuation in the county's history, affecting 350,000 people, or more than a third of all Pinellas residents.
Floridians are often blase about tropical storms, but worries about Charley put tens of thousands of people on the road and heading inland more than 24 hours before the hurricane's expected landfall. The Howard Frankland Bridge, the major connection between Tampa and St. Petersburg, was bumper to bumper eastward by 6 p.m. Thursday.
"Basically, if you can see the water, you're too close," said Larry Gispert, in charge of emergency operations in Hillsborough County.
Up and down Florida's Gulf Coast, people closed up homes and businesses, shopped for supplies and got ready to flee or hunker down.
Jeffrey J. Beggins, a real estate agent in Indian Rocks Beach, was covered in sawdust and wood splinters Thursday afternoon as he and co-workers cut plywood to board up his office, which he said was located just 5 feet above sea level.
"I'm a Florida native, and I've seen plenty of false alarms in the past," the 30-year-old businessman said. "This one just seems like it's real. If this one hits, we are going to feel a lot of fury." After protecting his office, Beggins said he had to pull his boat out of the water and hurricane-proof his home before leaving for a safer area.
John Korszeniewski, owner of the Sunburst Inn, a 10-room oceanfront motel in Indian Shores, said he and his wife, Bernadette, who once ran a motel in Oceanside, Calif., had decided to ride out Charley after telling their guests they had to leave. After all, said the suntanned man with a Navy tattoo, they had survived earthquakes in California.
"We put all the shutters down, tied all the furniture down, moved everything we could indoors, tightened everything down basically, and we are waiting to see what goes," said the 56-year-old innkeeper, who bought the blue-and-yellow motel a year ago. "We fell in love with this area. It's not a hurricane that is going to chase us away."
Across the Tampa Bay area, traffic lights bobbed and street signs wobbled in high winds spun off by Bonnie, a small taste of what Charley was to bring.
Randy Crowe, 46, a homeless man panhandling outside a Tampa McDonald's at lunchtime, said he didn't know what he was going to do.
"I reckon I might go into a building. Don't know if they'll let me in," he said.
Times researcher Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.