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Florida Keys Brace for Rita

Times Staff Writer

As Tropical Storm Rita churned off the southeastern United States, officials Monday ordered all 80,000 residents of the Florida Keys to evacuate, while in Louisiana, authorities hastily began planning for the possibility that their state might be struck by a second major hurricane in less than a month.

Rita, which late Monday had sustained winds near 70 mph, was expected to lash the Florida Keys today with high winds, heavy rains and up to 9 feet of storm surge and pass close to the island city of Key West, then strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico and move westward.

Forecasters said Rita could become a Category 1 hurricane as it neared Florida and could grow in the gulf to Category 3, which means it would have sustained winds of at least 111 mph and could cause extensive damage. Long-range projections showed that it could come ashore anywhere from northern Mexico to western Mississippi.

“It’s still too early to tell exactly where the storm will go,” cautioned Colin McAdie, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “But conditions are fairly good for intensification, with warm waters and favorable upper-level winds.”

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In the Keys, a normally laid-back, touristy island chain whose highest point is a Key West hillock just 13 feet above sea level, a growing stream of traffic flowed north on U.S. 1, the only surface connection with the mainland, as residents heeded an evacuation order issued by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and local officials.

“People are steadily leaving. And we’ve encouraged them to do that ASAP. Because tomorrow is going to be too late,” said Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy Becky Herrin.

Hospitals in the Keys closed, and Key West International Airport said it would cease operations at 6 p.m. In Miami-Dade County, immediately to the north of the Keys, public schools were ordered closed today, and residents of mobile-home parks, which are particularly vulnerable in high winds, were ordered to leave.

The entire low-lying Keys archipelago, as well as the Florida peninsula’s southern tip, was placed by the National Hurricane Center under a hurricane warning, meaning that sustained winds of 74 mph or greater were expected within 24 hours. Rita was expected to dump 6 to 10 inches of rain during its passage and as much as 15 inches in isolated locations of the Keys and northwest Cuba.

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The storm could stir up large and dangerous waves and raise the level of the seas by as much as 6 to 9 feet above normal tides, the hurricane center warned. That could mean extensive flooding and property damage.

“In the Keys, we are at sea level, basically,” noted Gary Teplitsky, co-owner of Baby’s Coffee, a Key West coffee importer and roaster.

As he spoke Monday afternoon by telephone with a reporter, Teplitsky confessed that he was so nervous about Rita that his hands were trembling.

“After Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast as hard as it did, I’d say all of us are scared to death,” he said.

But the coffee merchant said Keys residents had learned to take such storms seriously long before the Category 4 hurricane hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, causing breaches in New Orleans levees and tens of billions of dollars’ worth of property damage to coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Seven years ago, Teplitsky said, Hurricane Georges tore the roof off the building where Baby’s Coffee was housed. It took the company a year and a half to rebuild.

“I’m looking at the building now and thinking it’d be nice to be spared,” Teplitsky said. To get ready for Rita, he and his employees were covering computers with plastic and sending backup files to a computer in Miami.

“When we leave this place tonight, all we can do is look up, put our hands together and say, ‘I hope we’re here in the morning,’ ” Teplitsky said.

Monday night, Rita’s center was about 200 miles east-southeast of Key West. The storm was moving to the west-northwest at near 17 mph and was expected to pass over or near Andros island in the Bahamas. In Louisiana, officials were taking no chances as they worked on evacuation plans and held conference calls with leaders of parishes that could lie in Rita’s path.

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“Weather patterns change; we need to be prepared for that,” said Bill Doran, operations division chief of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Louisiana officials were working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to arrange for evacuations by bus of residents in any areas threatened by Rita, Doran said. The estimated 25,000 to 30,000 coastal residents in Cameron and Vermilion parishes in southwestern Louisiana were considered by state officials to be among the most vulnerable.

In coastal Galveston, Texas, which also was in the path that meteorologists said Rita could take, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas was planning to call today for a voluntary evacuation of the city’s 58,000 residents and to follow that with a mandatory evacuation order Wednesday, a city spokeswoman said.

“There will be no shelters set up in the city because we want everyone off the island,” city spokeswoman Mary Jo Naschke said. “Being an island, we’re very afraid of storm surge and flooding in addition to wind.”

In 1900, a hurricane with estimated winds of 135 mph made landfall at Galveston, inundating the Texas resort city with a 20-foot storm surge and killing at least 6,000 people.

Although the death toll from Katrina is still being tallied, the Sept. 8, 1900, hurricane remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Since then, a 17-foot-high seawall has been erected at Galveston, but Naschke said it would not protect many of the beach homes and other recent construction on the western end of Galveston Island. “With a tidal surge, there is a lot of development that would certainly be underwater,” she said. With Rita heading in their direction, Galveston residents “are being very cautious,” the city spokeswoman said.

Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.

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