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Florida Keys Brace for Hurricane

September 24, 1998

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Georges built up strengthen and bore down on southern Florida today, prompting officials to advise more than three-quarters of a million people to evacuate mobile homes and low-lying areas.

With Georges’ wind speed clocked at 80 mph, forecasters predicted that the hurricane _ already blamed for more than 110 deaths across the Caribbean _ would slice through the Keys by early Friday.

``This storm looks like it’s all set to explosively intensify once the eye gets over water,″ said Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Hurricane warnings were posted for four counties _ Monroe, Dade, Broward and Collier _ with a population of 3.8 million. The warnings meant that hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph could arrive by 5 a.m. Friday. Georges could be the first major hurricane felt in southern Florida since Andrew, which caused $25 billion damage in Florida alone in 1992.

At Miami’s Metrozoo, which still hasn’t recovered from Andrew, workers started moving animals to safety. At nearby Parrot Jungle, birds and monkeys were moved inside concrete buildings.

``They know something is up,″ said Robert Diaz, show director at Parrot Jungle. ``They are uneasy, pacing back and forth, acting irregular. They know it’s time to go ahead and find some shelter.″

Forecasters said hurricane conditions were possible in five more counties farther north by Friday evening: Palm Beach and Martin on the Atlantic coast, and Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties on the Gulf coast. Then the storm is expected to move over the Gulf, strengthening again and threatening the northern Gulf late Sunday night or Monday morning.

Advisories recommending evacuations of low-lying areas and mobile homes were issued today for as far north as the Sarasota area. The counties affected are Dade, Broward, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Sarasota, DeSoto and Manatee counties. The evacuation advisories cover at least 690,000 people. A mandatory evacuation order issued earlier in the Keys affects an additional 80,000. An evacuation order for 200,000 people from low lying areas of Pinellas County takes effect at 6 a.m. Friday.

In Cape Canaveral, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, NASA ordered the Discovery back to its giant hangar Thursday night. The space shuttle had been rolled to its launch pad Monday for next month’s scheduled mission with John Glenn.

Forecasters had said that the longer Georges’ center stayed over Cuba, the less time it had to build before hitting the United States. The eye was split over land and sea by late morning.

Jarrell of the National Hurricane Center advised Keys’ stragglers to get out, saying, ``We’re extremely concerned that the land areas will be inundated with water and we’ll lose a lot of folks down there.″

For the Keys, the wind was already picking up this morning. John and Sylvia Phillips, who live on a boat docked off Key West, had an uncertain future after they loaded backpacks and stuck out their thumbs to hitchhike to the mainland.

``We had to wait until last night to pick up a paycheck,″ said Phillips, a waiter and bartender. They made up their minds to leave during the night when ``that boat started rocking,″ Ms. Phillips said.

At 11 a.m., the hurricane was centered over Cuba, about 340 miles southeast of Key West, and moving west-northwest at 12 mph. Top winds of 80 mph, extending 35 miles from the center, were expected to increase.

Georges hit some Caribbean islands with 20-foot waves and storm surges 5 to 10 feet above normal tides. Some of the Florida Keys are as little as 7 feet above sea level. The highest point in Key West is 14 feet above sea level.

``It doesn’t take much to flood those islands. With a storm surge of 4 to 6 feet, it’s still going to cover a great deal,″ said Michelle Huber, a National Hurricane Center meteorologist.

By today, thousands had fled along U.S. 1, the two-lane road connecting the slender, 110-mile string of islands.

``It’s like a ghost town,″ said Jim Malloch, Monroe County’s project manager. ``There’s very few people out on the roads. At least half, maybe more, of the people left.″

Oswald Fleming, 71, a Key West resident for 30 years, was staying put.

``This ain’t the first one I’ve seen,″ he said after bicycling to a grocery store this morning for butter and eggs. ``I figure if you try to run from them, you run into them.″

The last major hurricane to directly strike the Keys was Donna in 1960. A hurricane hit Key West in 1846 _ unearthing caskets, washing some remains out to sea and tossing bodies into trees. Now the cemetery is built on higher ground in the center of town.

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