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Florida readies for Rita

| Monday, Sept. 19, 2005

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) - Residents were ordered evacuated from the lower Florida Keys on Monday as strengthening Tropical Storm Rita headed toward the island chain, threatening to grow into a hurricane with a potential 8-foot storm surge.

Although Rita's immediate threat was to Florida, rough projections of its track raised the possibility that the Louisiana coast could be targeted less than a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. Oil prices surged as traders worried about Rita's possible effect on facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm had sustained wind of about 70 mph by early afternoon, up from 60 mph earlier in the day, and could be a Category 1 hurricane, with wind of at least 74 mph, by the end of the day, the National Hurricane Center said.

The Keys evacuation covered 40,000 people living from below Marathon to Key West. Visitors were ordered to clear out of the entire length of the low-lying Keys, which are connected by just one highway.

Hurricane warnings were posted for the Keys and Miami-Dade County, and the storm's eye was expected to pass near the islands Tuesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said. Voluntary evacuation orders were posted for some 134,000 Miami-Dade residents who live in coastal areas such as Miami Beach and Key Biscayne.

Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, making this the fourth busiest season since record-keeping started in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933.

Computer models project that it could be in the northwest Gulf of Mexico near Mexico or Texas by the weekend, but people in areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana were warned it also could veer in their direction. Katrina crossed South Florida into the Gulf last month before it turned northward to Louisiana and Mississippi.

"This is something everyone should be paying attention to," said Daniel Brown, a hurricane center meteorologist.

The man in charge of removing water from New Orleans and surveying and repairing levees warned that Rita could affect efforts to remove water from the city.

"We're watching Tropical Storm Rita's projected path and, depending on its strength and how much rain falls, everything could change. Residents moving into the area may have to evacuate again," Col. Duane Gapinski, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Unwatering, said in a statement Monday.

If Rita strikes Texas, it could seriously disrupt the oil industry. About half of oil production and 35 percent of gasoline production in the Gulf already are shut down because of damage from Hurricane Katrina, according to the Minerals Management Service.

"We really can't afford to lose more production," said Phil Flynn, analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.

Key West streets were quiet Monday morning Kelly Friend and two workers boarded up her store and painted a message: "Hey bartender 1 Rita on the rocks to go!"

"Not that we're afraid of the hurricane, but we want to protect our investment," Friend said. "Plus it gives us an excuse to take a day off and drink."

The Defense Department's Northern Command sent defense coordinating officers to Florida and designated Homestead Air Force Base as a mobilization center. Military liaison officers were sent to FEMA headquarters in Atlanta and to a state emergency operations center in Tallahassee.

Six to 15 inches of rain was possible in the Keys, with 3 to 5 inches possible across southern Florida. A storm surge rising 6 to 8 feet above normal tide levels was predicted for the Keys.

Rita passed the Bahamas' southern islands during the night, but residents said the storm's outer bands didn't appear severe.

At 2 p.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 165 miles southeast of Nassau, Bahamas, or about 380 miles east-southeast of Key West. It had picked up speed and was moving to the west-northwest at about 14 mph, according to the hurricane center.

Four hurricanes struck Florida last year, killing dozens of people and causing $19 billion in insured losses. Hurricane Dennis brushed by the Keys in July before slamming the Florida Panhandle.

Farther out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Philippe formed late Sunday well east of the Lesser Antilles. At 11 a.m., Philippe had maximum sustained wind near 75 mph, and was centered about 365 miles east of the Leeward Islands. It was moving to the north near 7 mph.

The hurricane season started June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

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