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Ernesto slops across Florida

South Floridians embark on a familiar drill of stocking and boarding up, though some grab surfboards, before Ernesto slogs ashore.

By TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Published August 30, 2006


MIAMI - Tropical Storm Ernesto lashed South Florida with wind and rain Monday, threatening to flood low-lying areas and worrying homeowners who are still making repairs from last year's storms.

Ernesto never regained hurricane strength after leaving Cuba. And hours before it limped ashore with 45 mph winds, National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield called it a "mediocre tropical storm."

But South Floridians, clobbered last year by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, took no chances.

They stockpiled their essentials early, boarded up homes and stayed off roads as skies turned gray.

Forecasters expect Ernesto to work its way north through Central Florida this morning, hitting the Tampa Bay area with several inches of rain and winds around 20 mph.

It is expected to re-enter the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville, restrengthen into a hurricane, then strike the Carolinas on Thursday. It could then head inland and cause flooding along the eastern seaboard.

Florida Emergency Management director Craig Fugate dismissed talk of a weakened Ernesto.

"People let their guard down, they are going to do foolish things and they are going to get hurt," Fugate said. "This storm is not over."

Several storm-related injuries were reported Tuesday, including two elderly Miami-Dade women who were hurt while putting up storm shutters.

The major threat is flooding, with 5 to 10 inches of rain expected. Southeast Florida is vulnerable due to low-lying terrain; the southwest part of the state is already soggy from heavy rain.

Gov. Jeb Bush urged parents not to let children play in the storm and said people should stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary.

Still, Bush acknowledged that "there is no reason to overreact to this," and added that people should not hoard gasoline. Many gas stations in South Florida were pumped dry Monday night.

There are 299-million gallons of fuel at Florida's ports, Bush said.

Fifteen hurricane shelters opened in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and 49 more were on standby. Eight special needs shelters were also opened.

The National Guard deployed 200 troops and could add 300 more tonight, Bush said. Another 500 law enforcement officers have been activated.

A mandatory evacuation remained in place for mobile home residents in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Emergency officials also urged people with homes still damaged by Wilma to leave, although it was unclear how many did so - one pet-friendly shelter in Aventura was empty late Tuesday afternoon.

Overall, everyone from state officials to residents seemed better prepared for a storm this year. During last year's Hurricane Wilma, residents criticized officials for not providing food, water and ice soon enough after the storm. Many gas stations shut down entirely, unable to pump because of widespread power outages. And the government accused residents of being inadequately prepared.

This year, many gas stations and grocery stores had generators and the government staged search-and-rescue teams in various parts of the state.

Residents did their part, too.

Francine Fox, 47, of Homestead, filled sandbags outside of the Homestead Sports Complex, hoping to protect her house.

"There were Jet Skis and boats going down the streets (last year)," Fox said. In 2005, several inches of water seeped inside her home, and she didn't want to take any chances this time around.

"Who knows what it's going to do?"

Tarps still keep out rain in Broward

Sunrise Lake Condominiums in Broward County was hit hard by Wilma, with many units losing power and suffering water damage.

On Tuesday, work crews refastened blue and tan tarps to rooftops on dozens of buildings.

Several residents said they planned to ride out Ernesto at home.

Marjorie Greenberg, 85, moved to Sunrise from New Jersey last year. Wilma was the retired Radio City Music Hall ballerina's first hurricane. This year, she bought more supplies and prepared a hurricane kit: several days' worth of food and water provided to senior citizens by the city of Sunrise.

"We're all banding together this year," she said. "We're ready."

Shirley Berman, 55, and her roommate, Steve Arnold, 54, lost their homes after Hurricane Andrew barreled through South Florida in 1992. Last year, Hurricane Katrina stripped away siding and punched out the windows in a single-wide mobile home they now share with four Great Danes in Homestead.

Were they leaving this year? No way.

Berman wore an "I survived Hurricane Andrew" T-shirt and smiled as she tore apart a wooden fence she constructed around her mobile home. She needed the wood because she couldn't afford to purchase plywood to board up her windows.

"There's no way I can leave my dogs behind," she said. "Besides, everything I know is here."

Some ride the surf, leave the worries behind

This being South Florida, it wasn't all work and no play in the hours before the storm made landfall.

Andres Arroyave had the day off from work at Miami Dade College. Instead of hunkering down in his house, he drove to Haulover Beach with his surfboard.

Arroyave, 30, said he always surfs during hurricanes. The worst part, he said, is having to hide from the police, who always want to kick him off the beach just as the waves are "killer."

He had a plan for Ernesto, which involves surfing in several spots along the Florida coast and sleeping on friends' couches.

"I'm going to chase the storm all the way up to Vero Beach."

WHAT WE CAN EXPECT TODAY:

- Thunderstorms this morning and continuing into the afternoon.

- 20 mph winds.

- 2 to 3 inches of rain, with more onThursday.

- No evacuations.

- Government offices and public schools remain open, though parents should monitor local television and Web sites for possible changes.

- No classes today at University of Tampa.

- Tampa Electric beefed up its call center and Progress Energy prepared vehicles and equipment for quick response to power outages.

- Salvation Army will open an emergency homeless shelter at 7 a.m. at 310 14th Ave. S in St. Petersburg.

- Sandbag distribution centers will be open 7-11 a.m. at Northeast Park, Bartlett Park and Northwest Pool in St. Petersburg.

- ANDREA CHANG, Times staff writer