- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — The only whooshing sound Hurricane Ivan stirred yesterday in the Florida Keys and populous South Florida was a sigh of relief from residents who were no longer fearful that the 150-mph storm would make a direct hit.

But even as Ivan veered west on a course that took it away from the 120-mile island chain and Florida’s east coast, forecasters warned that the state, already slammed by two powerful hurricanes in a month, was not out of the woods.

Ivan’s forecast track across the eastern Gulf of Mexico could take it ashore on the Florida Panhandle — which took a glancing blow from Hurricane Frances — or parts of the state’s west coast that are recovering from Hurricane Charley.

“It’s creepy,” said Amanda Morrow, sipping frozen coffee at a Tampa restaurant that still had windows boarded up against the earlier storms. “No one knows where it’s going to go. That’s what is stressful.”

Ivan, blamed for at least 60 deaths and hundreds of injuries as it roared across Caribbean island nations, regained Category 5 hurricane intensity as it approached the western tip of Cuba. The storm was expected to pass near or over western Cuba sometime today.

At 11 p.m. last night, Ivan had top sustained winds of 160 mph, up from 150 mph earlier in the day, and it was centered 175 miles southeast of Cuba’s western tip, the National Hurricane Center said. The minimum for Category 5 status is 156-mph sustained winds.

The storm was moving toward the west-northwest at 9 mph and was expected to turn gradually toward the northwest.

Although hurricane-center projections had the storm bypassing the Keys, brushing it with only tropical-storm-force wind, uncertainty about its course prompted officials to keep an evacuation order in place for the island chain’s 79,000 residents.

“We would be foolish to lift the evacuation order now,” said Irene Toner, Monroe County’s emergency management director.

Gov. Jeb Bush said that about half of the Keys’ residents had obeyed the evacuation order. But the Overseas Highway, the only way in and out of the Keys, was not blocked, and some evacuees began trickling back during the weekend, though officials were not sure how many.

Tom Bordovsky, 51, was among the Key West residents who never left.

“Motel rooms, gas … it’s just a big hassle,” he explained.

“The east part of Florida looks like it got lucky,” said Rafael Mojica, a meteorologist at the hurricane center. However, he added: “The west part is still within the cone of uncertainty, and any deviation to the right by Ivan could mean a close call.”

Farther north, in the Florida Panhandle, some residents boarded up their homes yesterday.

Because of Frances, more than 290,000 homes and businesses still had no electricity, utilities officials said.

However, schools and government offices in many counties planned to reopen yesterday after an unplanned week off, and gas stations no longer teemed with motorists rushing to top off their tanks.

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