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Florida Keys Brace for Hurricane

September 24, 1998

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ Leaving at least 110 people dead in its wake, Hurricane Georges stormed toward the Florida Keys with gathering speed Thursday, and three-quarters of a million people along the coast were warned to clear out.

Forecasters said Georges would probably slice through the Keys _ the curving, whisker-like string of islands off the tip of Florida _ with 105 mph winds early Friday and could be up to 125 mph by Sunday in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

``This storm looks like it’s all set to explosively intensify once the eye gets over water,″ said a worried Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. He urged stragglers in the Keys to get out: ``We’re extremely concerned that the land areas will be inundated with water and we’ll lose a lot of folks down there.″

As many as 690,000 people were urged to evacuate along Florida’s Atlantic Coast as far north as Fort Lauderdale, and along the Gulf Coast up to the Tampa Bay area, for a total of about 300 miles of coastline. The roughly 80,000 people in the Florida Keys were ordered out on Wednesday.

``When I return I might not have a home. Anything could happen,″ Juana Ingles, a 67-year-old widow, said as she waited for a bus to take her from her Miami Beach apartment to a shelter at a school. ``I’m a sick person, too, with high blood pressure.″

At 5 p.m. EDT, Georges was centered along the northern coast of Cuba, 255 miles southeast of Key West, moving to the northwest at 14 mph, with winds of 80 mph. Hurricane warnings were posted for four counties _ Monroe, Dade, Broward and Collier _ with a population of 3.8 million.

Along Ocean Drive on Miami Beach’s chic South Beach, workers at cafes and bars put up plywood and took down awnings.

NASA initially ordered space shuttle Discovery rolled back to its giant hangar 3 1/2 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, but decided Friday evening to keep it on its seaside launch pad. The shuttle had been moved to the pad Monday for next month’s flight with John Glenn.

The threat of lightning and sporadic rain prevented the shuttle from being moved into its hangar throughout the day. NASA decided the risk of a lightning hit en route to the hangar was greater than the risk of damage in possible hurricane-spawned storms.

At Miami’s Metrozoo, which lost most of its birds and many other animals during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, workers planned to round up the flamingos and put them in a bathroom. Other animals were to be shut up in their quarters for the night. 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.″

Classes were canceled Thursday and Friday for most students in south Florida. On Wednesday a dozen F-16 fighter jets flew from Homestead Air Reserve Base to Georgia to get out of harm’s way.

Traffic moved smoothly as hotels filled up and people started to check into shelters set up in schools, churches, city buildings and other locations. In Fort Myers, hotels were filled to capacity with retirement home evacuees and vacationers whose trips farther south were interrupted.

Georges cut short Jana Williams’ vacation on Marco Island, along the Gulf Coast.

``We thought we were going on a relaxing beach vacation,″ she said as she and her husband lugged two heavy suitcases. ``Instead, we got this adventure.″

About 500 people huddled in a Red Cross shelter at the gym in North Miami Beach Senior High School. Blankets were spread on the floor. Marie Sinsmir, 62, had a book of hymns along with some food and a gallon of water.

``I will sing, not too loud, so God will help us get through it,″ she said.

Joe Cirilli, 76, and his wife Rosie, 67, left their mobile home and checked into a Fort Myers motel with three bottles of wine.

``I’m not really scared right now, but once that rain and wind get going I bet I will be,″ Mrs. Cirilli said.

More than 1,000 people checked into six Miami-Dade County shelters as winds gusted to 30 mph.

Mileydis Perez, 23, got the luxury of a cot at a Miami shelter because she is eight months pregnant.

``I just hope I don’t go into labor. That’s one thing I’m worried about,″ she said.

At least 110 people have died and hundreds are missing since the storm began its rampage across the Caribbean on Monday.

Georges could be the first major hurricane felt in southern Florida since Andrew, which caused $25 billion damage in Florida alone in 1992 and killed 26 people in the United States.

The last major hurricane to score a direct hit on the Keys was Donna in 1960, which killed 50 people before it was done. A hurricane hit Key West in 1846, unearthing caskets, washing remains out to sea and tossing bodies into trees. Now the cemetery is built on higher ground.

Still, as many as half of the Keys’ residents may have stuck around this time. The 110-mile strand of islands is connected to the mainland by a single, two-lane highway, and some of the Keys have an elevation of only 7 feet.

``We order them to leave and if they decide to stay they’re on their own,″ said Becky Herrin, Keys emergency management spokeswoman. ``There’s nothing we can do for them if they stay.″

``Georges Don’t Nail Us″ was spray-painted on plywood protecting the windows of Scotty’s hardware store in Key West. All of the candles were burning in the Lourdes grotto at St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, which stands as protection against hurricanes.

Sharon McGee watched the herons and egrets leave but intended to stay. ``If all you do is watch TV, you think you’re going to have your last drink of water,″ she said.

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