for National Geographic News
Hurricane Ike is forecast to hit the low-lying Florida Keys island chain early next week as a major hurricane. Given the Keys' limited escape routes, officials aren't taking chances and have ordered mandatory evacuations to begin Saturday.
As of 4 p.m. EST, Ike was a Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 115 miles (185 kilometers) an hour.
Forecasters think the storm could strike in the Keys as a Category 4 hurricane—with winds of at least 131 miles (211 kilometers) an hour—before continuing into the Gulf of Mexico at roughly the same power level.
Emergency-management officials in the Keys decided to order the evacuation on Friday afternoon after receiving an update on the forecast for Hurricane Ike, according to Jeffrey Pinkus, a resident and former mayor of Marathon, Florida.
Given that there is only one land route out of the Keys and onto the Florida mainland—U.S. Route 1, also called the Overseas Highway—officials are allowing plenty of time for the evacuation.
Becky Herrin, a spokesperson for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office—whose jurisdiction includes the Keys—said the Keys' estimated 15,000 visitors will begin leaving the islands tomorrow.
(Related: "Hurricane Warning for Florida; Keys Economy Already Hit" [August 18, 2008].)
Keys residents are to follow in phases. Key West, the southernmost point in the islands, will be evacuated first, with more northerly islands emptying later.
The evacuation will be halted around noon local time on Monday, Herrin said.
"We anticipate a lot of compliance with the evacuation order," she said. "This is a big and scary storm, and everybody is aware of it."
Keys officials will not force residents to leave, Herrin said.
But, she added, "if they choose to stay behind during an mandatory evacuation, we don't guarantee that we can help them if anything bad happens."
Pinkus, now a building contractor in Marathon, said his family will leave Sunday. He will follow them when he finishes securing two construction projects in anticipation of Hurricane Ike.
Keys officials were told that the eye of the storm could come ashore at Marathon, a town of about 10,000 roughly 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Key West, Pinkus said.
"We were told it would cross the Seven-Mile Bridge [just outside Marathon] Monday night," Pinkus said.
About 80,000 people live on the Keys, a 110-mile (177-kilometer) stretch of coral islands that curves southwest from the southern tip of Florida (see map).
Willie Drye is author of Storm of the Century: the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.
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