KEY WEST, Fla. — The Florida Keys were ordered evacuated today as meteorologists warned that the chain of islands likely would be brushed by Hurricane Michelle. Rain spread into the state as the heart of the storm closed in on western Cuba.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a hurricane warning for all of the Florida Keys, projecting that hurricane-force wind — 75 mph or more — could reach the area today or Monday. Heavy surf and wind up to 51 mph already were pounding the area this afternoon.
Monroe County officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for all of the Florida Keys on Sunday, one day after Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency.
"It appears that the storm has veered to the east, thankfully," Bush said today. But, "It’s still a very powerful storm … clearly there’s going to be some impact."
A 3-foot storm surge — a wave-topped swell of ocean water that could flood a large area — was expected to affect the Atlantic shores of the Keys, hurricane specialist Lixion Avila said.
Bands of rain already were spreading across the Florida Straits, which separates Cuba from Florida, and into the southern part of the state by early afternoon.
The chain of some 40 islands, stretching 128 miles, has a little more than 80,000 permanent residents, plus visitors. The keys are connected by highway bridges, but only two spans connect the first island, Key Largo, to the mainland.
By midday, traffic heading out of the Keys was only moderate, and there was still some light southbound traffic, said Highway Patrol Lt. Ernesto Duarte. "We don’t have any problems at all," he said.
No order had been given yet to shift all the lanes on the two bridges to the mainland to northbound traffic, Duarte said.
Michelle had top sustained wind of 135 mph today, but it was expected to weaken before reaching Florida and was not expected to strike the state directly. It had probably peaked in intensity, because a weather system coming across the Gulf of Mexico was producing disruptive air currents, Stewart said.
However, forecasters warned that if the storm deviated from its northeasterly track taking it in the direction of the Bahamas and turned toward the north, the Keys and South Florida could be hit.
"We will start to see our winds increase and we’ll probably see rainfall continue throughout the weekend and even into Monday," said meteorologist Krissy Williams.
A hurricane warning was in effect for western Cuba. The storm was projected to hit Cuba’s southwestern coast near the Bay of Pigs and cross the main island on a course east of Havana. The capital is home to 2 million of Cuba’s 11 million people.
The Bahamian government issued a hurricane warning for the northwestern and central islands. Michelle was expected to be near the central Bahamas by Monday, forecasters said.
The storm surged toward the northeast at nearly 13 mph today, up from about the speed of 3 mph it followed most of Saturday.
In addition to the hurricane warning for South Florida, a tropical storm warning was in effect along Florida’s Atlantic Coast north to Jupiter Inlet and along the Gulf Coast north to Bonita Beach, the hurricane center said.
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