As reported by Brian Skoloff on The Associated Press.
KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — Key West stores were shuttered and crews cleared sidewalks in some areas of newspaper boxes that could become airborne in high winds as Tropical Storm Fay headed for Florida after claiming as many as 35 lives in the Caribbean.
Tourists were urged to evacuate but many bars and restaurants remained open, even if crowds were considerably thinner than typical for this time of year. At the Stuffed Pig restaurant in Marathon, about a dozen locals had breakfast Monday morning, not worried but prepared for the storm.
“We always prepare, we don’t take it lightly,” owner Michael Cinque said. “We might roll down the shutters. We got built-in generators.”
Fay, the sixth named storm of the 2008 Atlantic season, left at least five people dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A Haitian lawmaker said another 30 people may have died in a bus crash blamed on the storm.
Forecasters said Fay is expected to near hurricane strength, which starts at windspeeds of 74 mph, when it reaches the Keys later Monday. Aside from wind damage, most of the islands sit at sea level and could face some limited flooding from Fay’s storm surge.
The exact track is not clear but the storm is expected to hit the Keys and then the western coast of Florida, forecasters said.
Anywhere from 4 to 10 inches of rain are possible, so flooding is a threat even far from where the center comes ashore, said Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.
“We don’t want people to focus on the exact track. This is a broad, really diffuse storm. All the Florida Keys and all the Florida peninsula are going to feel the effects of this storm, no matter where the center makes landfall,” he said. “We don’t want people to downplay this.”
Traffic leaving Key West and the Lower Keys Sunday night and Monday morning remained light but steady.
Authorities said traffic was heavier in the Upper Keys, where the 110-mile, mostly two-lane highway that runs through the island chain meets the mainland. The Florida Highway Patrol sent in extra troopers to help and tolls were suspended on parts of the northbound turnpike.
Key West International Airport planned to suspend operations at 10 a.m. Monday. Greyhound said one bus was set to leave Key West Monday morning with some seats still available.
A hurricane watch was in effect for most of the Keys and along Florida’s west coast.
Early Monday, a tropical storm warning was issued for Florida’s east coast from Sebastian Inlet southward and along Florida’s west coast from Bonita Beach southward, including Lake Okeechobee.
A tropical storm warning also remained in effect for the entire Florida Keys. A watch means those conditions might occur within 36 hours. A warning means those conditions are expected within 24 hours.
Officials in the Keys and elsewhere opened shelters and encouraged or ordered people living in low-lying areas and on boats to evacuate. Schools in the Keys were to be closed Monday and Tuesday.
At 8 a.m. EDT Monday, the storm’s center was located over western Cuba and about 100 miles south-southeast of Key West and was moving toward the north-northwest near 12 mph.
Maximum sustained wind speeds were near 60 mph with higher gusts.
Residents on Florida’s Gulf coast were told to make preparations as forecasters said Fay could approach that area Tuesday as a Category 1 storm, with winds from 74 to 95 mph.
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