MIAMI (AFP) - Florida battened down Monday as Tropical Storm Fay packed on more power as it struck the Florida Keys, after claiming 40 lives or more in the Caribbean.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said the storm, driving sustained winds of nearly 60 miles per hour, could intensify to hurricane strength as it slowly pushes toward southwestern Florida coastline.
At 12 a.m. Fay was centered just north of the vacation hub of Key West, or about 105 miles south of mainland Florida at Naples.
“Strengthening is expected tonight and Tuesday, and Fay is forecast to be at or near hurricane strength, with winds of 74 miles per hour, as it approaches the southwestern coast of Florida,” the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
A state of emergency was in place in Florida in anticipation of Fay’s landfall.
The 12,000 residents of the resort island of Marcos, south of Naples, were placed under a dusk-to-dawn curfew as a precaution from the oncoming storm, CNN said.
The storm’s tail of heavy rain was still pounding Cuba, which escaped Fay’s passage with little more than blown-off roofs, uprooted trees and some flooding, but no deaths.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti were not so lucky, with numerous deaths reported. The worst incident was in Haiti, where a truck carrying around 60 passengers plunged into a swollen river.
Civil protection officials said half the passengers were missing, with many feared drowned, but no firm toll was immediately available.
Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic due to the heavy rains, with thousands evacuated, media said.
One woman also reportedly died in Jamaica after her vehicle overturned in flood waters.
In Florida authorities ordered the evacuation of tourists and closed schools in the Keys and counties to the north. In Key West, four shelters were set up in case residents were also forced to abandon their homes. Flights were canceled.
The NHC warned people to complete “preparations to protect life and property.”
It said the storm was powering up to a possible category one hurricane, with storm tides up to 5 feet higher than normal.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist said the storm would likely have an impact over a broad area.
“Tornadoes are likely in some areas tonight (Monday) and tomorrow, and maybe even into the next few days,” he told a media conference.
Some 500 national guard members were deployed, with another 8,500 available if needed, Crist said.
“Even though this storm doesn’t look like it’s very dangerous and people will say, ‘it’s just a tropical storm,’ or ‘it’s just a Category One hurricane,’ our experience with Florida tells us that if we’re not careful, we will lose people,” said Craig Fugate, the state’s emergency management chief.
In Miami, a tropical storm warning was in effect and boardwalks and restaurants were empty, as authorities warned locals to remain indoors.
Although far from Fay’s eye, Miami was expected to get hit by tornadoes and flooding as it gets side swapped by the storm. There were already reports of power outages in homes affecting about 2,000 people.
But not everybody was hunkering down for the storm. Hundreds of surfers thronged Miami beaches to ride the huge swells the storm was serving up.
“We have amazing waves today, something not seen very often on this beaches. It’s a perfect day,” Australian Miami resident Martin Bain told AFP before charging off into the water with a bunch of friends.
And crude oil prices fell Monday as Fay’s path appeared likely to bypass oil and gas production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.
Royal Dutch Shell said it had evacuated 425 staff from the Gulf of Mexico but added that no more workers would leave as Fay appeared likely to miss its energy installations.
After roaring through Florida, the storm is expected to continue north, albeit with less power, into Georgia state, although its path was unpredictable.
Fay is the sixth named storm of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30.