Possible hurricane on the way to Florida

Tropical Storm Katrina strengthened on Thursday as it trudged toward Florida’s heavily populated south-eastern coast, and forecasters expected it to become a weak hurricane before making landfall overnight.

As the wind gained speed, the storm’s forward pace slowed, and it could drop 30cm of rain or more as it creeps across the peninsula. Battering waves and storm-surge flooding of 60cm to 1,2m were also likely, the National Hurricane Centre said.

Hurricane-weary residents topped off their gas tanks and bought bottled water, but many were skipping the storm shutters this time around. Wind is less of a concern for secured structures in category-one hurricanes, which have top sustained winds of 119kph to 153kph.

Station attendants along the Interstate 95 corridor between Miami and Fort Lauderdale said they were seeing up to 25 motorists an hour early on Thursday, instead of the usual handful.
People were buying gas and stocking up on water and cigarettes.

“People go out and fill their tanks to the brim, but they don’t leave. They buckle down,” attendant Chris Bonhorst said.

At 3pm GMT, Katrina was centred about 90km east of Fort Lauderdale. Some of the first outer bands were passing over Miami-Dade and Broward counties, bringing winds of about 16kph to 24kph and light rain.

Katrina’s top winds had reached 97kph, up from 80kph earlier in the day, and its forward pace slowed from 13kph to 10kph as it crossed the warm, storm-feeding waters of the Gulf Stream.

Its westward path was centred on Palm Beach county, but forecasters warned it could easily move a bit to the north or south before striking the coast. If the forecast holds, Katrina would be the second hurricane to hit the state this year—Dennis hit the Panhandle last month—and the sixth since August 13 last year.

A hurricane warning was issued from Vero Beach to Florida City, as well as inland Lake Okeechobee. A tropical-storm watch was issued for the central Atlantic coast, west coast and parts of the Florida Keys.

Fifteen to 30cm of rain was expected as the slow-moving storm crosses the state, with some spots getting up to 50cm. After it moves into the Gulf of Mexico, it could turn to the north and eventually strike the state’s Panhandle early next week, forecasters said.

Crude oil prices briefly touched a record $68 a barrel amid worries about the storm’s possible effect on Gulf of Mexico production, but later backed off.

Schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties closed for the day, and Broward county recommended evacuation of barrier islands and low-lying regions.

Katrina formed on Wednesday over the Bahamas, bringing heavy showers and battering waves but causing no reported damage or flooding.

“For the most part it’s just been pretty much a wet storm, but not much wind,” said Basil Dean, the Bahamas’ chief meteorological officer.

North-western Florida was hit by Tropical Storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis earlier this year. Last year, four hurricanes struck Florida.

In an average year, only a few tropical storms have developed by this time in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The hurricane season began on June 1 and ends on November 30.—Sapa-AP

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