Hurricane Warning for Florida; Keys Economy Already Hit

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
August 18, 2008
As tropical storm Fay gathered strength, the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for much of South Florida and the Florida Keys today at 2 p.m. ET, meaning hurricane conditions are expected in the region within 24 hours.

Whether Fay reaches hurricane status before hitting the Keys, the storm has already rained on the islands' economic parade, thanks to an evacuation order for all tourists issued Sunday. The order was rescinded today as the Keys' main roads began to see freshwater flooding, making it dangerous for evacuees to drive.

The center of tropical storm Fay is expected to have winds of about 60 miles (97 kilometers) an hour when it reaches the Keys "shortly after sundown" tonight, according to Key West-based meteorologist Bill South of the National Weather Service.

The storm's center is expected to cross the islands near Big Pine Key, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Key West, South said.

Fay could intensify into a hurricane before landfall, with winds of 74 miles (119 kilometers) an hour—the minimum requirement for hurricane status.

(Related: "2008 Hurricane Season Will Be 'Well Above Average'" [April 9, 2008].)

Money Down the Drain

Even if it doesn't develop into a hurricane, Fay's heavy rainfall and high winds could be dangerous to visitors unaccustomed to tropical storms on these narrow, low-lying islands south of the Florida peninsula.

Even tropical storms can cause dangerous flooding by pushing surges of ocean water onto shore—one reason to get tourists off the Keys.

"We're about three feet [a meter] above sea level here," said Bill Mauldin, a former Key West police chief who now runs a security-consulting service. "With the storm surge, it doesn't take much to cause flooding."

That means a big chunk of revenue will be lost to owners of restaurants, shops, bars, fishing and snorkeling boats, and other attractions.

Tourists were ordered out of the Keys on Sunday morning, when forecasters predicted that Fay would cross the islands late Monday. Vacationers largely complied with the order, and the evacuation went "surprisingly well," Monroe County Sheriff Rick Roth told National Geographic News.

"Traffic was moving steadily," Roth said. "It didn't stop. It was backed up, but it never did stop."

On any given day, there are a hundred thousand or more tourists on the 110-mile (180-kilometer) stretch of coral outcroppings that make up the Keys.

How Much Lost?

Keys tourism officials do not yet have an exact calculation for the cost of the Fay evacuation to the local economy. But in 2004, when evacuations were ordered for three hurricanes that passed near the Keys, the total cost to business was estimated at U.S. $50 million.

The cost of evacuating for Fay will be considerably less than that, said Andy Newman, publicist for the Florida Keys tourism council.

"No one ever likes visitor evacuation," Newman said. "But if the Keys have to be dealt the evacuation card, this is a good time for it.

"The bulk of our visitors this time of year come from South Florida. People were leaving [Sunday] anyway. The hotels expected very, very low occupancies for [Monday]."

In Marathon, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Key West, boat owners were busy all day Sunday pulling their boats out of the water, said resident Jeff Pinkus.

"Most of the businesses don't like evacuations, but it's something we've got to do," Pinkus said.

In Key West the port has been closed, meaning the city will further lose tourism revenue, because large cruise ships won't be allowed in until the storm threat has passed.

Cmdr. James Olive of the U.S. Coast Guard station in Key West said a Coast Guard cutter from the island already has had to tow one boat to safety, and he expects the Coast Guard here will be busy for a couple of days.

"What we typically deal with are people who are unfamiliar with such storms and are unprepared for them," Olive said.

With the departure of tens of thousands of tourists, downtown Key West was unusually quiet Monday morning.

"It's cooled down a little and been very pleasant," said Mauldin, the former police chief. "Basically, it's very calm right now. But that may change this afternoon."

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