- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — Many businesses were shuttered and streets were largely deserted yesterday as residents fled from this normally bustling island resort town, concerned that Hurricane Ivan was heading for Florida.

The deadly storm smashed into Jamaica early yesterday with ferocious waves and wind nearing 155 mph. Ivan had 165 mph sustained winds later, making it a Category 5 hurricane.

Ivan headed for the Cayman Islands and Cuba on a path that could take it near the Florida Keys tomorrow, but forecasters said the storm’s track made a gradual turn that could also send the eye west of the Keys and spare the island chain and South Florida from its strongest winds.

Billy Wagner, senior director of Monroe County Emergency Management, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the forecast, but officials said they had no plans to ease protective measures.

“From a psychological standpoint, it feels better, but from a meteorological standpoint, we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Matt Strahan, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Key West.

At 8 p.m. yesterday, Ivan was centered about 130 miles southeast of Grand Cayman. After drifting for several hours, the storm resumed a west-northwest track at 9 mph.

Meteorologists expected it would be near or over the Cayman Islands today.

Ivan had killed at least 50 persons in the Caribbean as of yesterday afternoon. Hurricanes Charley and Frances were blamed for 50 deaths in Florida.

Monroe County officials ordered an evacuation of the entire 100-mile Florida Keys, the chain of low-lying islands that are vulnerable to storm surges. It was the third evacuation in a month for tourists and the first in three years for the chain’s 79,000 residents.

Some people stayed behind, determined to ride out the storm or waiting to make up their minds.

Lauren Oed casually painted her toenails on the wooden dock of a marina, undecided about whether to leave or face the hurricane on the sailboat of her friend, Eddie Mathis.

“Being on a boat anywhere for a hurricane isn’t a good thing,” said Mr. Mathis, who has lived on the boat for a decade, “but you don’t want to give up everything you’ve got, everything you’ve worked for.”

State officials, still staffing around-the-clock operations since Hurricanes Charley and Frances struck, were preparing for a potential strike on the Keys, charting plans to reach storm victims by air and by sea for search-and-rescue efforts and to deliver relief supplies if any of the bridges that connect the islands to the mainland are impassable.

“If those roads and those approaches are damaged, we won’t be able to drive into the Keys. We have to have an alternative to get teams in there,” said Craig Fugate, the state’s director of emergency management.

Officials said some operations helping in the recovery from Charley and Frances were being shifted or temporarily suspended, but they stressed that support for victims of those storms would continue as Ivan approached.

“We’re working together to make sure that we continue to provide for the recovery of Charley, for the relief of the people that were hit by Frances and now the preparation for what appears to be an even bigger storm,” Gov. Jeb Bush said.

“Sometimes I wish that these things wouldn’t all happen in our state all at once, but if there was a place that could rebound from this, it’s Florida,” he said.

About 738,000 homes and businesses still lacked power yesterday on Florida’s east coast, where Frances struck on Sept. 5. Without air conditioning, many Palm Beach County residents faced such nuisances as overflowing sewers that created an unbearable stench.

“People are so stressed. They still don’t have power, so there’s no air [conditioning]. They’ve got a lot of attitude,” said Kathy Wilmore, 43, who sat at an outdoor cafe in downtown West Palm Beach while crews worked to fix the roof of her damaged apartment building.

Many Keys residents tried to take the storm in stride. Michael Barnes, a lawyer who has seen several hurricanes during his 15 years in Key West, said preparations for Ivan had a bright side.

“Anything that comes to Key West and takes away the trains and trolleys and tourists is not all bad,” he said. “The worst have been the ones who put out the electricity that prevent me from having ice for my drinks.”

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