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Hurricane Georges Lashes Fla. Keys

September 25, 1998

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Georges lashed the Florida Keys today as the core of the menacing storm moved closer. The 100 mph winds sent waves crashing onto streets and knocked out power.

Shelters and hotels from Miami to Orlando filled up after more than 1 million people from Key West to Tampa were urged or even ordered to leave coastal and low-lying areas and mobile homes.

``The water has been sucked out of the bay. There’s a boat high and dry that’s gotten loose and in the flats,″ said Marion Sargeant, who lives with her cousin in Key Largo on Florida Bay between the island chain and Everglades National Park. ``There’s normally 4 feet of water where the boat is sitting _ and that’s now in inches.″

A hail of leaves, branches and palm fronds blew across the Overseas Highway in Marathon, in the middle Keys, and 76 mph gusts lifted rainwater off roofs. In Miami, where the smell of seawater spread 10 miles inland, bands of slanting rain repeatedly shot ashore.

``A big old tree fell on my house, crashed right down by my head so I figured I might as well come outside,″ Marc Hightower said as he stood outside a converted icehouse. ``You’re not any safer in an old wooden house.″

The eye of the sprawling storm was expected to pass south of Key West by 11 a.m. _ farther south than earlier expected.

The eye was expected to pass about 20 miles west of Key West, ``which is probably the worst possible thing″ for that city, said Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The storm’s harshest attack has been on the eastern edge.

The eye of a hurricane often brings a storm surge, and a surge of 7 feet was forecast for the Keys. Key West’s top elevation is only 14 feet, and some other islands top out at 7 feet.

``We are as ready as we can be, and we pray that the human and material cost will be limited,″ President Clinton said in Washington.

``It looks like Noah’s ark in here,″ Vince Taporowski said this morning as he watched the roiling water from his home on Big Pine Key, north of Key West. ``Noah had a good idea _ bring two of everything. So are we.″ Among those staying in his home were his two grown children and their spouses, two grandchildren and two pet ferrets.

Taporowski and his family were among thousands of residents who stayed in the Keys despite an evacuation order and the storm’s trail of 250 deaths in the Caribbean.

``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.″

At 10 a.m., Georges’ eye was about 25 miles south-southeast of Key West, where only a few cars ventured onto Duval Street, usually the hub of tourist activity. Electrical transformers boomed as they blew out.

A hurricane warning was posted for the Keys and the Gulf Coast north to Longboat Key, about 40 miles south of Tampa. The hurricane warning was downgraded to a tropical-storm warning _ meaning a storm with winds of 39 mph to 74 mph _ on the Atlantic Coast north of the Keys, but the Gulf Coast tropical storm warning stretched north to Bayport, about 40 miles north of Tampa.

After hammering southern Florida and islands along its Gulf Coast, the storm was expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico, strengthening over the water with winds perhaps topping 110 mph. That would put it on track to menace coastal areas in the northern Gulf over the weekend. From the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana, officials started advance planning and warned residents to be wary.

``We’re concerned about areas of Louisiana and eastward,″ Jarrell said. ``Almost anyone in those areas should be paying close attention to this system.″

The first signs of the hurricane arrived in Marathon in the middle Keys shortly before sunset Thursday, spawning the first of several waterspouts. As wind and rain became more steady, as many as 4,000 people lost power in Broward and Dade counties.

Schools, courts, state and federal offices and businesses were shut in many communities, and scores of buildings were shuttered with the familiar plywood of hurricane season.

Jean Burnett was among about 60 people taking shelter at the Glynn Archer Elementary School in Key West. The 80,000 people in the Keys were ordered out on Wednesday, but Burnett and many others were determined to ride out the storm. She wasn’t worried about her house.

``No, honey, I’m worried about my life,″ she said.

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

About 2,500 members of the National Guard were ordered to be ready for hurricane assignments. Four C-130 cargo aircraft were reserved to fly troops to the Keys for post-storm security.

Ahead of the storm, traffic moved smoothly as hotels filled up and people checked 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. Along Ocean Drive on Miami Beach’s chic South Beach, workers at cafes and bars put up plywood and took down awnings.

More than 1,000 people checked into six Miami-Dade County shelters on Thursday as winds picked up. Mileydis Perez, 23, got the luxury of a cot because she is eight months pregnant.

``I just hope I don’t go into labor,″ she said.

At a shelter at a North Miami Beach high school, Masataka Noguchi, a student at E F International Language Schools, said he thought people were overreacting to Georges.

``In Japan, there are typhoons, but there aren’t situations like this. Usually in Japan if a typhoon comes Japanese people stay home,″ he said. ``This situation is very boring but maybe it’s a good experience for me.″

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