tampabay.com

Florida watches, waits for Ernesto

Residents know the drill, as state and federal officials warn them to prepare, especially in the southern part of the state.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published August 29, 2006


MIAMI - Ernesto started as a tropical storm, grew into a hurricane and shrank back to a storm, flirting with the Gulf Coast for days.

It was forecast to hit hurricane-weary New Orleans as a Category 3. Then it aimed toward Pensacola. Then Tampa. On Monday, it moved over eastern Cuba and set its sights on South Florida, where it is expected to make landfall late tonight or early Wednesday.

Gov. Jeb Bush said people all across Florida, especially in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, should prepare for a storm and buy extra food, water and gas. R. David Paulison, Federal Emergency Management Agency director, said he was rushing tens of thousands more premade meals and bottles of water to Miami and Jacksonville in advance of Ernesto's arrival. That was in addition to hundreds of federal truckloads of supplies, ice, tarps and plastic sheeting already in the state.

"My suggestion: Take this storm very seriously. A hurricane is a hurricane," Bush said from the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

Ernesto may not even be a hurricane if it hits South Florida. As of 11 p.m. Monday, it was officially a tropical storm over Cuba, with 40 mph winds, the National Hurricane Center reported. Ernesto's center was near latitude 21.7 N, longitude 77.8 W, just inland over eastern Cuba, about 20 miles north of Camaguey. It was moving west-northwest near 12 mph.

Through most of Monday, forecasters predicted a path that would take Ernesto through Dade County, north along the East Coast, then out over the Atlantic around Brevard County.

Late Monday, they shifted that path a little to the west, extending a tropical storm watch as far north as Englewood.

Michael Brennan of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said there is a 44 percent chance that tropical storm force winds (39 mph or higher) will strike the Tampa Bay area, most likely between 8 p.m. today and 8 a.m. Wednesday.

The storm caused massive flooding in the Dominican Republic and one death in Haiti before Cuba's rugged mountains sapped its energy.

Unsure what to expect, South Floridians took the storm seriously.

County emergency operations centers buzzed to life, schools were closed and people waited a half-hour or more to get gas. Tourists in the Keys were ordered to evacuate, and shelters were to open this morning.

Retiree Jim Gillespie of Plantation was shocked at the lines he saw as he drove making deliveries for a dentist office, while keeping an eye out for a short gas station line. He ended up at a station in Fort Lauderdale, where he waited 30 minutes to fill up.

"It wasn't this crazy before Wilma, but it was this crazy afterward," said Gillespie, who has lived in Florida more than 50 years. "I think people now know what to expect, since we've been through it already."

Last year, Hurricane Katrina brushed Category 1 winds over Florida's southern peninsula, causing weeklong power outages and headaches. Then Hurricane Wilma hit the region as a Category 2, with gusts up to 120 mph. Many residents weren't prepared for the intensity of the storm and complained that the state and FEMA were late delivering food, water and ice.

Bush said he was confident that South Florida residents 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."

Tampa Bay officials were keeping an eye on the storm but expressed little concern.

Hillsborough County director of emergency management Larry Gispert said residents should use Ernesto as an opportunity to make sure their disaster plans are in order.

"We're going into the heart of our hurricane season," Gispert said. "There will be another opportunity, and it probably will be pretty soon."

That is not to say that Florida - and a certain segment of South Florida's population - won't be severely affected by the storm.

Thousands of South Floridians, mainly the poor and the elderly, haven't yet fixed the ravages of last year's storms.

"I'll be right here in this house until it falls in," declared Willie Burden, an 82-year-old Hialeah resident whose roof started leaking during Hurricane Wilma last October and hasn't stopped since.

A nonprofit group called No Blue Roofs was supposed to begin work on Burden's roof Monday, but the job was postponed due to Ernesto.

Ron Book, the Miami organizer of the No Blue Roofs program, said between 3,000 and 5,000 Miami residents have damaged roofs that have yet to be fixed.

Enduring another hurricane "drives people deeper and deeper into poverty," said Book, who added that Ernesto could devastate many of the city's poorer homeowners.

"I don't care if it's a Category 1, Category 2 or tropical depression," said Book. "We can't afford even a tropical depression in our community."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Bill Varian, Andrea Chang and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.