Having seen seven hurricanes in two years, well-trained Floridians stocked up and then hunkered down Tuesday as Tropical Storm Ernesto drenched residents and vacationers with as much as 10 inches of rain.
A year to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, federal and state authorities urged those in Ernesto’s path to prepare for the worst -- even though the National Hurricane Center reported the storm had failed to pick up much intensity after crossing the warm waters of the Straits of Florida.
Winds at a steady 45 mph chased most surfers out of the water by late afternoon, when Miami-Dade and Broward counties closed their beaches as waves crashed against the shoreline. Homeowners closed storm shutters hours before nightfall and waited for the noisy deluge to pass. Miami International Airport suspended flights after 8 p.m.; Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport also closed.
There were at least two storm-related deaths. A traffic accident in Miami-Dade during an intense rainstorm killed a female passenger when she was ejected from a Mercedes that hit a tree, and a motorcyclist died in a crash on a rain-slicked highway near Boca Raton.
“This looks to be a less powerful storm, but still one to be taken seriously,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said during a visit to the emergency management center in Tallahassee, comparing Ernesto to Hurricane Wilma, the October storm that last brought him to Florida.
Heavy rain was the biggest concern as Ernesto moved up the Florida peninsula, the National Hurricane Center said. At 11 p.m., Ernesto was 65 miles south of Miami and moving northwest at about 8 mph.
Though the storm had weakened, the hurricane center still extended tropical storm warnings over the next state in Ernesto’s path, Georgia.
Gov. Jeb Bush -- in what has become his trademark fatherly address to Floridians facing a hurricane -- advised parents to use the enforced hours inside their homes or shelters to read to their children. He also urged citizens to stay inside to avoid injury from flying debris and road hazards, such as downed trees and power lines.
“All those things common sense would tell you, I hope you’ll do that,” Bush said in his televised warning. “We’re prepared for this storm, and we’re working hard to make sure all Floridians get through this safely.”
Mandatory evacuations were ordered only for those living in low-lying areas, mobile homes or dwellings damaged by storms in the past two intense seasons. Dozens of shelters were opened for Miami-Dade and Broward residents who wanted to seek refuge, but few showed up. Fewer than 200 had arrived at Miami shelters before public transportation halted at 2 p.m.
Indeed, many along the vulnerable Atlantic Coast and barrier islands seemed unruffled by the storm, noting they’d weathered far worse last year with Katrina and Wilma. Some popular Miami Beach restaurants, including Jerry’s Famous Deli and the News Cafe, remained open and determined to serve patrons as long as food and the power supply held out.
“Business has been very good. People are in pretty good spirits,” said Jerry’s general manager Justin La Loggia.
Miami Beach hotels also reported few cancellations.
“People are taking it in stride,” said Nelly Ovalle, sales director for the beachfront Alexander Hotel. “Some people are calling to reschedule for later in the year, which is a wonderful thing. But we’ve had hardly any cancellations.”
About 500 National Guard troops were deployed statewide -- supplementing local police, fire and public safety departments. State law enforcement officers were poised to respond to any emergency, Bush said.
The National Weather Service’s hurricane hunter aircraft was allowed to fly into Cuban airspace to take measurements of the storm as it entered the straits early Tuesday, an unusual gesture of accommodation by the communist government. Bush chalked it up to the shared experience of past weather disasters.
“We’re grateful for whatever we can have,” the governor said of the Cuban access, adding that if the island had been badly hit, “I’d be the first to suggest Cuba be given aid.”
Bush declined to say whether the gesture signaled the possibility of a different relationship between the United States and Cuba now that Fidel Castro had stepped aside because of illness and handed power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.
There were no reports from Cuban media about significant damage or loss of life as Ernesto passed through that nation Monday. Haitian officials, however, reported at least one storm-related death.