Florida Keys’ 80,000 people evacuate islands

MIAMI (AP) — All 80,000 residents of the Florida Keys were ordered to evacuate the islands Wednesday as Hurricane Georges stormed toward the island chain, and cars and trucks with boats in tow squeezed onto the two-lane highway that is the only road to the mainland.
With more than three dozen people dead in its wake in the Caribbean, Georges moved over Cuba and could reach the Keys later today.
Because of the hurricane’s wobbly course, officials said 540,000 more people could be asked early today to leave Miami Beach and other low-lying areas farther up the coast.
Traffic was heavy but brisk after tolls were lifted on all evacuation routes between Key Largo, the northernmost island in the Keys, and Orlando.
“I don’t want to stay for a hurricane,” said Fort Pierce resident Pat Stowell, whose Key West vacation with her husband ended abruptly. “Been there, done that.”
At 5 p.m., Georges was drifting west at 14 mph along Cuba’s southern coast, 535 miles southeast of Key West, with winds of 75 mph.
Forecasters said Georges could weaken over Cuba and reach the Keys as a tropical storm. Or it could strengthen and slice through the Keys late Thursday or early Friday.
“Satellite pictures make us think it is coming back like gangbusters,” said Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Gov. Lawton Chiles declared a state of emergency in central and southern Florida, allowing the state to activate the National Guard, lift tolls along evacuation routes and buy bulk emergency supplies.
The Florida Keys are one of the most difficult places in the United States to evacuate because a single two-lane highway connects the 120-mile-long chain with the mainland.
U.S. Highway 1 runs over the ocean for miles at a stretch, with the roadway only about 5 feet above the water in some places. Stretches of the highway have been submerged during past hurricanes.
In Key West, a devil-may-care sort of place where crusty island dwellers often choose to stick out storms, the smell of fresh wood was in the air from all the sawing and drilling as people boarded up windows to protect their homes.
Only a few dozen stragglers populated the tourist strip that is normally host to thousands. Those remaining ran red lights, double-parked and generally disobeyed traffic laws.
Devin Crimmins, 19, of Huntington, N.Y., pitched in as employees of the Jangada clothing store loaded Nike, Reebok and Mossimo sportswear into a rental truck for a ride out of town. “I just came here looking for a souvenir and they asked me to help,” he said.
The last major hurricane to make a direct hit on the Keys was Donna in 1960. Georges could be the first major hurricane felt in South Florida since Andrew, which caused $25 billion damage in Florida alone in 1992.