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Ernesto menaces gulf

A tropical storm, then a hurricane, then a tropical storm, Ernesto has the potential to sweep across the Tampa Bay area. Or not.

Published August 28, 2006

Ernesto, for less than 12 hours the first hurricane of the Atlantic season, was headed for the Florida Keys on Sunday on a predicted path that could take it to this region by midweek.

Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, and warned that the evacuation of multiple counties may be necessary. The state of emergency directs counties to open emergency management offices and activates the National Guard, among other things.

Bush also canceled a trip to New York today, choosing to stay in Tallahassee and monitor storm developments.

Though Ernesto was downgraded to a tropical storm Sunday evening, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a hurricane watch for the entire Florida Keys, and warned that further watches could soon be posted for other parts of the state. Visitors were ordered to leave the island chain.

The projected path carried Ernesto's center right over Key West and the Lower Keys as a Category 1 hurricane, with winds from 74 to 95 mph.

The highly tentative longer term prediction had it making landfall as a hurricane south of Tampa Bay as early as Wednesday.

But the forecasters' probable strike zone swallowed the entire Florida peninsula. The storm's squalls stretched 115 miles from the center Sunday evening, though they pulled back to 70 miles by 11 p.m..

"We need to turn it up a notch here in Florida," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center. "It looks like this is going to be a Florida storm."

Mayfield and other forecasters confronted an unusually complex set of atmospheric, oceanic and geographic circumstances, and they readily acknowledged that Ernesto was more difficult to predict than most storms.

After losing much of its energy Sunday over Haiti, where it delivered torrential rain and aroused concerns about life-threatening flash floods, Ernesto was expected to reach Cuba this morning.

Then, it could slice diagonally through that island for 24 hours, passing over storm-disrupting mountains. That could weaken Ernesto more than expected - or not. It could knock it off course - or not.

"That's the tricky part," Mayfield said.

His forecasters downgraded Ernesto back to a tropical storm at 5 p.m. Sunday, fewer than 12 hours after it became the first hurricane of the 2006 season.

They emphasized, however, that they expected it to re-intensify overnight and strike Cuba this morning as a hurricane.

They warned: No one should take this storm for granted or focus on the downgrade.

"That's a mistake," Mayfield said. "We think it has a good chance to regain hurricane status."

At 11 p.m. Sunday the center of Tropical Storm Ernesto was near latitude 18.6 N, longitude 74.7 W, about 155 miles west of Port au Prince, Haiti, and about 115 miles south-southeast of Guantanamo, Cuba.

It was moving toward the northwest near 7 mph, which forecasters expected to increase today and tonight. Maximum sustained winds were near 50 mph.

In the Tampa Bay area, emergency officials adopted a wait-and-see stance, remaining on standby as they communicate with state officials.

"We're making phone calls, making sure everybody is in town, dusting off our plans," said Hillsborough County emergency management spokeswoman Holley Wade. "There is still a lot of uncertainty. This is not the time to panic. But it is a real good time to get those extra jugs of water."

Across the region, emergency officials had the same mantra: If you haven't developed a plan, do it now.

"Don't keep waiting for a threat to develop," said Gary Vickers, Pinellas County's director of emergency management.

Many people in the Tampa Bay region were ahead of that advice.

By Sunday afternoon home supply stores and supermarkets were reporting brisk sales on supplies like batteries, flashlights, water and plywood.

At Wal-Mart in Port Richey on Sunday afternoon, workers were busy re-stocking the soup shelves. Jugs of drinking water were limited to only a couple of shelves.

"I loaded up on more cans and waters, just in case," said Bonnie Constantin of Port Richey as she and her husband, TJ, pushed their cart in the parking lot. "It can't hurt. It saves coming out here in three or four days, battling it out."

Tampa Bay school officials were watching the storm Sunday, but had made no plans. Schools were closed in the Keys for today.

Haiti and Cuba also were under the gun. Heavy rain was reported in Port-au-Prince and forecasters warned that life-threatening floods were possible in many parts of Haiti. One unconfirmed storm-related death was reported in Gonaives.

In Cuba, more than 35,000 people were evacuated from Holguin, 20,000 from Las Tunas and 17,000 from Camaguey, and other evacuations of residents and tourist were under way, according to the Cuban media.

For hurricane observers, Ernesto's projected path bears a striking resemblance to that of Hurricane Charley, the Category 4 storm that tore through Charlotte County in August 2004.

FEMA trailers along Interstate 75 are still housing displaced residents.

Like the projected path of Ernesto, Charley tracked north along Florida's west coast, aiming for a time at Clearwater Beach and threatening the entire Tampa Bay area, before abruptly turning east into Charlotte Harbor.

"People shouldn't assume that because it is taking the same path, it will go the same way," warned Mike Brennan, of the National Hurricane Center.

Brennan emphasized that residents should not focus just on the dotted line at the center of the probability cone.

"The storm could easily be anywhere in the cone," he said. "There will be changes, certainly, to the forecast in the next several days."

Eight hurricanes have struck or brushed Florida in the last two years.


[Last modified August 28, 2006, 05:57:35]

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