Hurricane Charley, the second major storm to descend on Florida this week, is expected to bring 100 mph winds to the state's west coast Friday before slicing sharply north and bringing the threat of heavy rains and flooding this weekend to the Washington area and much of the Eastern Seaboard.
Charley's swirling approach prompted evacuation orders from Key West to the Tampa area, affecting more than 1 million people. The evacuations in Pinellas County, largest in the region's history, clogged bridges as residents fled barrier islands and low-lying communities in the Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa areas. MacDill Air Force Base, home to the U.S. Central Command, which oversaw much of the Iraq war, and downtown Tampa will likely be mostly underwater because of the storm surge, forecasters said.
The seasonal rite of plywood fortification was in full bloom along more than 300 miles of threatened Florida coastline, from the debauched party streets of Key West to the tranquil "wrinkle cities" of the Gulf Coast's retirement zones.
Gov. Jeb Bush (R) declared a state of emergency for all of Florida, which took a dose of wind and rain on the Panhandle on Thursday from Tropical Storm Bonnie. It has been 98 years since major storms pelted the state on consecutive days.
"It does have the potential of devastating impact. . . . This is a scary, scary thing," Bush told reporters.
When Charley arrives is critical. If it hits Friday afternoon in the Tampa area, it could coincide with high tides and cause storm surges of 13 feet, the highest since Hurricane Donna in 1960, which killed 50 people in the state and caused the equivalent of $2 billion in damage. The last major storm in the area, Hurricane Elena in 1985, stalled offshore, leading to more than 300,000being evacuated.
Bonnie and Charley are forecast to take similar paths within a day of each other along much of the East Coast. That raised the possibility that ground saturation could lead to heavy flooding as Charley drenches communities already inundated by Bonnie. "We're getting one after another, so this is going to add up to a major flooding situation," said T.N. Krishnamurti, a hurricane expert at Florida State University.
In Clearwater, across the bay from Tampa, emergency officials were struggling to convince residents about the dangers of a Category 2 hurricane forecast to make a direct hit in the region. At least four times in recent years, forecasters had predicted hurricanes would make landfall there, but the storms changed course.
"There's a little bit of the 'Doubting Thomases' going on," said Jeff Pearson, a Pinellas County 911 supervisor.
The attitude was so relaxed that women were still streaming in for dye jobs and trims at Sharmaine's Salon and Day Spa on Mandalay Avenue.
A "laughing into the wind" spirit dictated as the primping and poofing went on, blissfully unabated, even as workers were pulling out plywood to protect the shop's windows. Evacuate? Not a chance, the haircutters said.
"This is my first hurricane," stylist Courtney Kriskewic, 22, said. "I just moved down from New Jersey. I'm going to hang out. I'm excited."
Down the road, at the Beach Bar, Greg Musick boasted that his business has never closed in 50 years of operation. No boards on his windows. No sandbags at his door.
"I hope I don't regret it," he said. "We've got plenty of candles."
Charley gained strength throughout Thursday, arching over the Cayman Islands before pelting Jamaica and making its way toward Havana. There were reports of long lines for supplies outside stores in Cuba's capital. One man drowned after being swept into the roiling waters off Jamaica, and about 2,000 tourists and hotel workers were airlifted from the Cuban island resort of Cayo Largo, Reuters reported.
Less than 100 miles to the north, at the southern extreme of Florida, the surest sign of trouble on the horizon was the ritual migration out of the trailer parks. Mindful that trailers are especially prone to crumpling and going airborne under heavy winds, Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley ordered residents to evacuate their trailers and live-in motor homes.
Mindful of the power of the storm -- which is expected to bring heavy rains to the island but skirt far enough to the west that the most powerful winds will be far offshore -- Weekley even tread onto sacred ground in Key West. He gently informed bartenders practiced in the art of mixing potent brews called "hurricanes" that no alcohol could be served after 10 p.m. on Thursday.
Such edicts are informed by experience. Weekley grew up on the island and does not have to work hard to remember the howling "hurricane parties" of his youth.
"They were pretty wild," he said. "We were a lot younger then -- we thought we were infallible."