- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — Residents boarded up windows yesterday and evacuated the low-lying Florida Keys as Tropical Storm Rita gathered strength in the Bahamas, threatening to grow into a hurricane with an 9-foot storm surge.

In New Orleans, the mayor suspended his plan to start bringing residents back to the city after forecasters warned of the chance that Rita would charge through the Gulf of Mexico and interfere with recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Oil prices surged on the possibility that the storm would interrupt oil and gas production.

The storm’s top sustained wind speed was 70 mph by yesterday evening, and it was expected to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane, with winds of at least 74 mph, by the time it got close to the Keys early today.

“The main concern now is the Florida Keys,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “It’s moving over very warm water, and that’s extremely favorable for development.”

Hurricane warnings were posted for the Keys and Miami-Dade County, the hurricane center said. Residents were ordered to evacuate the lower Keys, and visitors were ordered to clear out of the entire chain of islands, which is connected by just one highway. Voluntary evacuation orders were posted for about 134,000 Miami-Dade residents in coastal areas such as Miami Beach and Key Biscayne.

“This storm has some potential to it. The time to go is now,” said the state emergency management director, Craig Fugate.

Although many Keys residents take pride in staying put during hurricanes, others said they were worried because of Katrina’s devastation of Louisiana and Mississippi. Most stores on Key West’s Duval Street were boarded up yesterday, and streets were nearly empty as the sky turned cloudy.

“We’re going north, wherever the storm isn’t going,” John Williams said after he and Lisa Sparks got married yesterday morning on the beach in Key West.

Six to 15 inches of rain was possible in the Keys, with 3 to 5 inches possible across southern Florida. A storm surge rising 6 to 9 feet above normal tide level was predicted for the Keys.

Forecasts can be off by hundreds of miles, but hurricane center forecasters warned people along the Gulf to watch Rita closely; officials in Galveston, Texas — nearly 900 miles from Key West — were already calling for a voluntary evacuation.

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