Florida Keys evacuate visitors, campers, parks

MIAMI - All visitors were ordered evacuated from the Florida Keys on Wednesday as officials prepared for the possibility that Tropical Storm Debby could hit Florida as a hurricane.

Monroe County, which governs the island chain, declared a state of emergency with Debby still hundreds of miles away.

''It could be powerfully close by Friday,'' said Michael Tichacek, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center.

Mary Ann Kirkland, dockmaster for Whale Harbor Inn & Marina, said it was business as usual at the Keys fishing resort on Islamorada, about 65 miles southwest of Miami.

''The skies are clear - a couple of little puffy clouds up there - but it's a beautiful day,'' she said.

Still, a Philadelphia fisherman rebooked his weekend trip rather than risk confronting Debby, and some charter boat captains canceled trips set for Saturday.

State and county parks and private campgrounds were instructed to close by noon, and all large recreational vehicles, travel trailers and tent campers were ordered out.

Monroe County schools will be closed Thursday and Friday. Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park south of Miami shut down.

To the north, in Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center workers took plywood and sandbags out of storage to be put up in case the storm veered in that direction. Space shuttle Atlantis could be moved off a launch pad into its hangar if it were threatened.

In the Keys, an automated calling system was activated to contact more than 300 hotels and guest houses along the 180-mile island chain with a recorded message about the evacuation. Hotels were asked to post notices and contact guests.

The system was developed to ease evacuations along the Overseas Highway, a mostly two-lane road that is the only route to the mainland from the low-lying region.

Many South Floridians weren't taking any chances. Some raced to stores and stuffed shopping carts with bottled water, canned food, milk and batteries, and the truly nervous hefted portable generators onto truck beds.

A soaking rain would be welcome throughout the state, said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the state Agriculture Department. ''We're out of wildfire danger, but the aquifer and the lakes and so on are low,'' he said.

The most recent hurricane to hit South Florida was Irene, blamed for seven deaths last October. The storm flooded much of the resort city of Key West with up to 10 inches of rain.


On the Net:

Florida Emergency Management: http://www.state.fl.us/fgsd-html/access.html

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

Hurricane Central: http://www.weatherpoint.com/hc/home/0,1916,oso,00.html


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