Millions flee ‘scary’ hurricane

Hurricane Charley zeroed in on Florida’s west coast on Friday and state officials urged about a million tourists and residents to evacuate and avoid the path of a storm that could submerge parts of this city’s downtown and other neighbouring areas.

Charley’s expected 190kph top sustained winds and massive storm surge could devastate coastal and low-lying areas in the cities of Tampa and St Petersburg. Everything from waterfront condominium towers to vulnerable mobile homes are in danger on the Gulf Coast.

Charley’s centre was expected to pass west of the Florida Keys early on Friday before hitting the Tampa Bay area later in the day, dumping heavy rain and possibly spawning sporadic tornadoes, Hugh Cobb, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, said on Thursday.

About 6,5-million of Florida’s 17-million residents are in Charley’s projected path, the United States Census Bureau reported.

“It does have the potential of devastating impact … This is a scary, scary thing,” said Governor Jeb Bush, who has declared a state of emergency.

State meteorologist Ben Nelson said the surge could reach up to 5m in the Tampa area if Charley hits at 190kph, making it a major hurricane at category-three strength.

At 5am local time, the hurricane was in the Florida Straits, 135km west-southwest of Key West.

Forecasters said Charley had top sustained winds of about 180kph. It was moving north-northwest near 30kph and was expected to strengthen, meteorologists said. Hurricane-force winds extended outward 50km from the eye. Tropical-storm-force winds went out 200km from the eye.

All of the west coast of Florida’s peninsula is under a hurricane warning, as well as the lower Florida Keys. Tropical storm watches and warnings extend from the middle Keys to Cape Fear, North Carolina.

Most of the evacuations are in the area of Tampa and St Petersburg. All residents of MacDill Air Force Base, on another peninsula in Tampa Bay, were ordered out with only essential personnel remaining. MacDill is home to US Central Command, the nerve centre of the war in Iraq.

“MacDill Air Force Base will probably be mostly underwater and parts of downtown Tampa could be underwater if we have a category three,” Nelson said. “In a category three, you can almost get to the point where Pinellas County becomes an island.”

Gary Vickers, a local emergency management chief, told people in evacuation zones there will be “a period of time where if you stay behind and you change your mind and you want to be rescued, no one can help you”.

“We aren’t going to go out on a suicide mission,” he said.

Heavy traffic flowed on Thursday afternoon away from the coast near Tampa in Florida’s biggest evacuation request since 1999, when Hurricane Floyd prompted an order for a record 1,3-million people to evacuate the state’s east coast.

In the Florida Keys, visitors and mobile home residents followed orders to leave the entire 160km-long island chain.

Many residents tried to prepare for the worst, buying plywood to board up homes and stocking up on water, canned food and batteries to ride out Charley.

Beth Ciombor of Sarasota was at a hardware store on Thursday loading two sheets of plywood on to the top of her minivan while her two-year-old son watched.

“It’s very threatening,” Ciombor said. “I’m on the verge of tears. It’s so frightening.”

Power companies said they are mobilising thousands of workers to prepare for widespread electricity outages and out-of-state crews are being readied to rush to Florida.

On Thursday, Tropical Storm Bonnie came ashore in the Florida Panhandle, but its top sustained winds of 80kph caused little damage. It weakened into a depression late on Thursday and is no longer a threat, Cobb said.

Already a category-two storm, forecasters said Charley could develop into a major hurricane.

Earlier, Charley drenched Cuba and the Cayman Islands, and in Jamaica a man was killed as he disappeared trying to rescue six people from rising flood waters.

Typhoon death toll rises

Meanwhile, the death toll after a powerful typhoon ripped through eastern China’s Zhejiang province this week has risen to at least 115, state-television station CCTV said on Friday.

“The typhoon has killed 115 people in the entire Zhejiang province, with 16 others missing,” CCTV reported in its evening news, updating the previous toll of at least 63 killed.

“In the province, 50 cities and counties have been affected. The total number of people affected were 8,59-million people,” CCTV said. — Sapa-AFP, Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers David Royse in Apalachicola, Ken Thomas in Key West, Vickie Chachere in Sarasota and Rachel La Corte, Adrian Sainz and John Pain in Miami contributed to this report.

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