Tropical Storm Fay hits Florida Keys

Tropical Storm Fay hit the Florida Keys with heavy rain and winds that knocked down trees and signs before churning toward south-west Florida on Monday after killing more than 50 people in the Caribbean.

The sixth storm of the 2008 Atlantic season did not reach hurricane strength before rolling across the vulnerable, low-lying Florida island chain with 97km/h winds.

Authorities reported some flooding and minor damage and said they expected to invite tourists back on Wednesday.

But forecasters said there was a chance Fay would be at or near hurricane force—top sustained winds of 119km/h—when it strikes the west coast of Florida early on Tuesday, somewhere near the beach resort area of Naples, the Miami-based United States National Hurricane Centre said.

Although its path was far from US oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, some energy companies pulled workers from offshore platforms. Orange juice futures prices shot up on fears Fay could hit Florida’s main citrus growing areas.

In Key West, the tourist-dependent party town and southern-most city in Florida where Ernest Hemingway wrote many of his novels, the mood was typically nonchalant.

Jim Garland’s neighbours brought their drinks to the deck of his 11m trawler, Ilene, at Garrison Bight marina to celebrate the passage of the storm.

“I flew in two days ago to prepare the boat,” said Garland, of Biloxi, Mississippi, who was on the trawler when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast three years ago. “Not much to do on a dock like this but add extra lines and make sure the boat can rise and fall with the tide.”

The popular Hog’s Breath Saloon was one bar that closed down due to the poor weather.
But many restaurants remained open even as the wind began to pick up and a driving rain started to blow through the streets.

“This isn’t a hurricane. If the media wasn’t down here hyping this up, this would be a non-event,” grumbled Key West Island Books proprietor Marshall Smith.

Minimal damage
Authorities in the archipelago had ordered visitors to evacuate on Sunday, creating bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway out of the islands on the state’s tip.

Fay knocked down some trees, signs and awnings but did not cause any significant damage and authorities expected to give the all-clear for tourists to return on Wednesday. Several hundred utility customers were without power.

As Keys residents breathed a sigh of relief, shelters began to open on Florida’s southern Gulf Coast. Tourists were urged to leave some resort islands and ordered off others, while mobile home dwellers and residents of flood-prone areas were urged to seek shelter as night fell. Overnight curfews were in effect in some areas.

Across Florida at least 22 school districts, a handful of community colleges and one university cancelled Tuesday’s classes, and Governor Charlie Crist warned residents not to develop “hurricane amnesia”.

“Floridians should continue to monitor their local news,” Crist said. “They should continue to stay calm and be smart and make sure they exercise common sense.”

More than 10,8-million people could feel the storm’s effects on its projected path, the US Census Bureau said.

By 3am GMT, Fay was about 90km south of Naples, and its top sustained winds were at 97km/h, the National Hurricane Centre said.

It was moving north at 15km/h and was expected to continue on that path over Florida’s south-west coast on Tuesday. The densely populated Miami-Fort Lauderdale area in the south-east of the state was buffeted by bands of heavy rains and gusty winds.

Fay crossed Cuba without apparently causing serious damage.

In Haiti, witnesses said about 50 people died when a bus tried to cross a river swollen by rain. Eight others were killed in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and two died in Jamaica when their car was caught in a flooded crossing.—Reuters

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