Hurricane Warning for Florida; Keys Economy Already Hit

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 The order was rescinded today as the Keys' main roads began to see freshwater flooding, making it dangerous for evacuees to drive.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.

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