Tropical Storm Heads for Fla. Gulf Coast

Tropical Storm Fay is on its way to Florida. The storm has already killed at least five and as many as 35. Forecasters expect Fay to be near hurricane strength when it arrives in the Florida Keys later today. Video by AP
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 18 -- Tropical Storm Fay headed for Florida's west coast late Monday after dumping heavy rains on Key West and slashing through the Caribbean, leaving at least five people dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Forecasters expect Fay to strengthen over warm water in the Gulf of Mexico and say it could grow into a low-level hurricane with 74-mph winds before again making landfall on Tuesday in southwest Florida. The storm appeared to be headed just north of Fort Myers, Fla., near areas devastated by the powerful Hurricane Charley in 2004, though forecasters said it could deviate from its projected path.

Emergency managers warned of possible tornadoes and projected up to 10 inches of rain. Schools were being closed and shelters were being opened in much of southern Florida; in Naples, about 40 miles south of Fort Myers, golf courses were canceling tee times.

Fay made landfall at Key West at 3 p.m., arriving a day after more than 25,000 people evacuated the island, according to the National Hurricane Center. There were scattered power outages on the island but no reports of major damage, said Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.

Florida officials have worried for weeks about a sense of complacency after several recent storms bypassed the state. On Monday, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) was warning residents to be vigilant in advance of Fay, the sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.

"I know it's only a tropical storm, but we take it seriously," Crist told reporters.

Still, emergency managers were not predicting major damage.

"This isn't the type of storm that's going to rip off a lot of roofs," Craig Fugate, Florida's director of emergency management, said at a news conference.

Several oil companies evacuated workers from Gulf oil rigs as a precaution, but the storm appeared to be tracking away from deep-water oil fields. The price of crude oil futures fell after the storm veered away from the rigs.

Before reaching Florida, Fay ripped across islands in the Caribbean, where officials braced for the worst even though the storm did not reach hurricane status. In the past, even moderate tropical storms have been devastating. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne -- which made landfall in Florida as a hurricane -- caused floods and mudslides that killed more than 3,000 people in Haiti.

But Haiti, which is prone to devastating flooding because of mass deforestation, appeared to have averted catastrophic damage from Fay. U.N. officials said two infants were killed when an overcrowded bus tipped over while trying to cross a swollen river. No other deaths were reported.

In Cuba, which is renowned for the efficiency of its hurricane preparations, shelters were set up and more than 10,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas. But the storm, which drifted east on Monday, slid clear of Havana, where rickety apartment buildings are always at risk of collapse in major storms.

Schools were closed Monday throughout much of southern Florida, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale on the state's east coast, where officials were expecting residual effects of the storm. On Florida's west coast, county emergency managers were declaring preemptive states of emergency and urging residents to take precautions as the storm churned through the Gulf of Mexico.

So far, 2008 has been a relatively light hurricane season. Only Dolly, which struck Texas on July 21 and is blamed for two deaths in flash floods in New Mexico, has made landfall in the United States as a hurricane. On Monday, as Floridians were watching Fay, there were signs of more wind and rain to come -- a low-pressure system that forecasters said could reach tropical-storm status was forming west of the Cape Verde Islands.

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