KEY WEST, FLA. — Two years since a hurricane last lashed Florida, many residents took a wait-and-see attitude Monday 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 put up hurricane shutters and checked their generators, but didn't do 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 early 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 be at or near hurricane strength 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."
But Fay showed little mercy as it moved though the Caribbean. The storm was blamed for at least 14 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, including those of two babies who were found in a river after a bus crash.
Florida officials urged people to take Fay seriously, worrying that complacency could cost lives. The message got through to tourists -- Monroe County Mayor Mario Di Gennaro estimated that 25,000 had fled the Keys.
"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.
But, 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."
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 were ready to be distributed.
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.
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 now requires some 970 gas stations along hurricane evacuation routes to have backup generators so they can keep pumping if the power goes out. Many utilities also have installed stronger power poles.
At 11 p.m. EDT, Fay was about 60 miles south of Naples and moving north at about 9 mph. Sustained winds were about 60 mph with some higher gusts.
A hurricane warning was in effect along southwestern Florida from Flamingo to just south of the Tampa Bay area. A tropical storm warning was in effect in the east from Flagler Beach southward and in the Keys. A warning means those conditions are likely within the warning area in the next 24 hours.
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, with winds of at least 74 mph.
No damage or injuries were reported in the Keys, where a few bars and restaurants stubbornly remained open. Authorities said a possible tornado knocked down a tree on Big Coppitt Key and there were scattered power outages and flooded streets.
Local officials plan to reopen Key West's airport Wednesday.
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, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.
"This is a broad, really diffuse storm. All the Florida Keys and all the Florida peninsula are going to feel the effects of this storm, no matter where the center makes landfall," he said. "We don't want people to downplay this."