Gordon forces evacuations, soaks Florida's Gulf Coast

CEDAR KEY, Fla. - Tropical Storm Gordon lost some strength as it charged toward Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday with winds just below hurricane strength, drenching rain and a storm surge threatening to reach 10 feet.

Gordon's top sustained winds fell from 75 mph early Sunday to about 70 mph by afternoon, just below the 74 mph threshold for a hurricane.

A voluntary evacuation was underway on the small island of Cedar Key, directly in the storm's path about 100 miles north of Tampa, but many of this rustic fishing town's 800 residents were staying put.

''A lot of residents have been here for years. They've ridden these out before,'' Mayor Heath Davis said. ''Their words are like, 'We've always stayed, we're staying this time.'''

Forecasters expected Gordon to hit the coast late Sunday in Florida's Big Bend area, according to Hugh Cobb, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. ''Around Suwannee River, we're looking for landfall in that area later on this evening,'' he said.

The weakening of the system is due to a combination of factors, he said: ''The circulation center is getting close to land, plus it's pulling in dry air from the Gulf of Mexico and southeastern U.S.''

Levy County Sheriff's deputies were telling non-residents to clear out from Cedar Key by Sunday afternoon. Two hurricane watchers from Atlanta were chased away from a dock.

''We have been chasing hurricanes for about 15 years,'' said John Tyler, a pizza delivery man who said he was disappointed by Gordon's force.

''It's real weak,'' he said. ''It's too dry and cool to get much stronger.''

Others along the coast weren't taking chances. By midafternoon, 227 people had taken refuge in 43 shelters in nine counties, dozens of flights were canceled at Tampa International Airport, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball game with the Oakland A's was called off.

By 5 p.m. EDT, the storm's center was about 55 miles southwest of Cedar Key, or 80 west-northwest of Tampa. The storm was moving north-northeast at about 14 mph.

Rain was pounding the coast Sunday, and wind speeds were increasing. In Sarasota, easily flooded streets were already under water by afternoon, though officials reported no injuries and no substantial wind damage.

Forecasters predicted storm surge flooding of 7 to 10 feet above normal tide levels near the eye's landfall and said that might coincide with Sunday's high tide. Cedar Key stands about 3 feet above sea level.

The National Hurricane Center posted a hurricane warning early Sunday extending from Anna Maria Island, just south of St. Petersburg, north to Ochlockonee River on the Florida Panhandle. Tropical storm warnings were in effect on the Atlantic Coast, from Titusville, Fla., north to Little River Inlet, S.C.

NASA decided to leave the space shuttle Discovery on its seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral instead of moving it into its hangar. Discovery is scheduled to blast off Oct. 5 on a space station construction mission.

Evacuations were ordered for low-lying areas and mobile home parks in Citrus and Taylor counties north of Tampa, and five counties - Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Hernando and Pasco - were under voluntary evacuation. In low-lying Dixie County, just north of Cedar Key, emergency management director Arthur Bellot said most of his county's 13,000 residents ''are as ready as they can get.''

Craig Fugate, chief of the state emergency response team, said the storm's main effects were expected to be street flooding, power outages and small tornados.

Near Tampa, Willard and Jean Holmes left their mobile home in Clearwater for the safety of a shelter. They've weathered previous storms, but this time is different.

''When they said 'tornado,' we decided it was time to leave,'' said Jean Holmes, 79.

State emergency officials moved to their highest level of alert, with 24-hour staffing and agencies including the National Guard prepared to provide assistance.

Business was brisk at gas stations in small Panhandle towns in Gordon's path.

''We've sold more gas this morning and less bait than usual, but we're still selling bait,'' Linda Sapp said at a gas station and convenience store in Ochlockonee Bay, about 40 miles east of Apalachicola. ''A few people have gone to fish from the beaches or the docks. We're selling gas for cars, not boats.''


On the Net:

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


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