Bush: 'Get prepared'

Emergency shelters were opened in the low-lying Keys, and state officials were working to find out how many gas stations were equipped with generators. Officials say they're preparing for a Category 2 storm.

Published August 28, 2006

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush urged people in South Florida and the Keys to prepare for the season’s first hurricane Tuesday, and state emergency officials said they are preparing for a Category 2 storm with heavy rains and storm surges.

“Get prepared,” said Bush, who has patiently guided storm-weary Floridians through eight major hurricanes over the past two years. “We’re planning for a Cat 2 storm.”

Emergency shelters were opened in the low-lying Keys, and state officials were working to find out how many gas stations were equipped with generators to keep fuel flowing after power goes out.

Bush cautioned residents not to treat Ernesto lightly just because it was still classified as a tropical storm as it moved over Cuba at midday Monday.

He noted that Hurricane Katrina was “only” a Category 1 when it passed over the Florida peninsula last Aug. 25 before it strengthened over the Gulf into a storm that devastated the Gulf Coast as a Category 3.

Bush urged people to immediately complete preparations to have emergency supplies for 72 hours after the storm passes.

There was mass confusion and intense criticism last August after Hurricane Wilma crashed ashore in South Florida. While there were problems with the state getting necessities to distribution points, Bush said too many people in harm’s way didn’t stock up on 72 hours’ worth of provisions as they should have.

Bush said he was confident that residents of South Florida would react differently this time.

“Human nature is a wondrous thing,” Bush said. “Wilma created a lot of hardship and suffering, and I think people are very sensitized in South Florida to these storms.”

Bush said it was too soon to say whether the impending storm would force a rescheduling of a statewide primary election scheduled for next Tuesday.

“My expectation is that the election will go off,” Bush said. “There could be some impact on early voting.”

The governor usually has swift and sure opinions about how people should react in the path of a storm. But he said he had no opinion on whether Florida’s NBC-TV affiliates should proceed with prime-time debates on Monday and Tuesday nights involving the major candidates for governor.

“I don’t know,” Bush said. “I’m speechless right now.”

Bush cancelled a planned trip to New York City Monday to stay home and oversee hurricane preparations.

He had been scheduled to meet with Wall Street experts on the state’s catastrophic insurance fund and with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

State emergency operations manager Craig Fugate said Ernesto’s projected path, up the center of the South Florida peninsula, means that people should plan to move further inland, by 10 miles or so, to avoid the worst of it.

“This should not result in loss of life if people will take steps to protect themselves,” Fugate said.

He said it was too soon to move ice, water and other necessities to staging areas near the storm.

Meteorologist Ben Nelson said the storm would most likely make landfall as a Category 1 storm in the Upper Keys Tuesday afternoon.

The worst possible thing people could do, Nelson said, is become curiosity-seekers and drive around during the storm -- risking their own lives and those of others by doing so.

The National Hurricane Center has posted hurricane watches from Deerfield Beach on the Broward-Palm Beach county line south to Key West on the southeast coast and from the Keys to Chokoloskee on the southwest coast.

Staff writer Steve Bousquet is at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.