KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Georges lashed the Florida Keys today as the core of the menacing storm began passing over. The 105 mph winds sent waves crashing onto streets, toppled trees and knocked out power.
Shelters and hotels from Miami to Orlando filled up after more than 1.2 million people from Key West to Tampa were urged or even ordered to leave coastal and low-lying areas and mobile homes. The storm had already killed more than 300 people in the Caribbean, and it was expected to attack the northern Gulf coast after it leaves southern Florida.
``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. At several points, water washed across the only two-lane highway connecting the slender strand of islands.
The hurricane invaded the Florida Keys with winds that made the surf look like boiling water.
Roaring seas crashed on top of a landmark 10-foot red-and-yellow buoy stuck in cement marking the southernmost point in the continental United States. Waves smashed into Keys marinas exposed to the Atlantic, rocking boats and sending choppy waves cascading over docks and beaches.
``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 center of the sprawling storm was passing near Key West around midday _ farther west than earlier expected. Residents reported briefly seeing sunshine, indicating a section of the large eye was right over the city. Several hours more of violent weather was expected on the back side of the storm.
The slight shift to the west meant a milder storm for the state’s densely populated Atlantic coast, but ``is probably the worst possible thing″ for Key West, said Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The storm’s harshest attack has been on the eastern edge.
Even without the hurricane-force winds that had been feared, some 150,000 people lost power as the edges of the storm lashed the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas. The smell of seawater spread 10 miles inland and bands of slanting rain repeatedly shot ashore.
A storm 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. He said water was blowing through cracks in the windows and his home lost power.
Taporowski and his family were among thousands of residents who stayed in the Keys despite the evacuation order.
``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.″
A hurricane warning was posted for the Keys and the Gulf Coast north to Longboat Key, about 40 miles south of Tampa. The coast from Longboat Key to Bayport, about 80 miles total, was under a tropical storm warning _ meaning a storm with winds of 39 mph to 74 mph. On the Atlantic coast, the hurricane warning was downgraded to a tropical-storm warning.
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, including parts of Florida battered by Hurricane Earl earlier this month. Late this morning a hurricane watch was posted from St. Marks in the Florida Panhandle west to Morgan City, La. Officials started advance planning and warned residents to be wary.
``This storm is especially worrisome,″ said Hank Turk, chief of civil defense in Jackson County, Miss. ``It’s not one of those little tropical depressions that have been meandering around the Gulf. This is a real hurricane.″
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.
More than 1,000 people checked into six Miami-Dade County shelters on Thursday.
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.
``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.″