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Ernesto limps to Atlantic

For Florida residents, the storm proves more bluster than brawn. In the Carolinas, it could be a different story.

By TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Published August 31, 2006


Ernesto went easy on Florida before it left the state late Wednesday night near Cape Canaveral as a tropical depression.

The Carolinas might not be so lucky.

Forecasters predicted the storm would strengthen over the Atlantic, strike South Carolina late tonight and dump up to 7 inches of rain as it heads back inland. Governors in North and South Carolina put National Guardsmen on standby in case of flooding.

Ernesto, which reached hurricane status last week before weakening in the mountains of Cuba, came ashore in Florida at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday just east of Flamingo, in the Everglades.

It carried winds up to 40 mph but remarkably little rain as it headed north through Florida's midsection, then out into the Atlantic about 11 p.m.

Miami received only 0.72 inches of rain over Tuesday and Wednesday, Fort Myers less than an inch, and Key West, 1.35 inches.

Highlands County, near Lake Okeechobee, got the worst of it, with about 8 inches. But basically, it was a meek storm.

"This one just kind of broke up," said Margaret Lendziani, 64, who evacuated from her Broward County mobile home. "God was on our side this time."

Mobile home residents like Lendziani were worried that Ernesto would be strong enough to tear off roofs and send water into their homes - just like hurricanes Katrina and Wilma did last year.

Renee Martinez, 38, returned to her Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in Davie after spending the night at a friend's house. She moved into the trailer last December after her home in Boca Raton was destroyed during Wilma.

Ernesto, she said, was very different. "To me it was not even a bad storm," she said. "The burden was the anxiety."

Forecasters had a difficult time tracking Ernesto's intensity - mostly due to Cuba's mountains and a band of unforeseen high-level winds. Both caused Ernesto to run out of steam.

"The intensity forecast is almost like putting a million-piece jigsaw puzzle together and some of those pieces to the puzzle don't have any color on them and some of those pieces are missing," said National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield. "It's very, very difficult and we're probably 10 to 15 years behind in track forecasting with intensity."

Researchers say unmanned reconnaissance aircraft may bring more accurate forecasts by taking measurements around the clock. NOAA plans several tests in September on a plane made by Aerosonde Corp.

In the meantime, Mayfield said, Floridians have to get used to the fact that meteorologists may be spot-on when it comes to a storm's track but stymied by the strength.

Evelyn Guzman of Homestead said Hurricane Andrew taught her not to let her guard down.

"Since Andrew, we've always taken the weather seriously. We watch all the storms closely," she said.

To residents who endured damage from Katrina and Wilma, Tropical Storm Ernesto was barely a thunderstorm. About 18,000 people reported power outages but most were restored by the end of the day. There was no flooding.

Connie Brooks, 32, spent Tuesday night playing Monopoly with her children at a friend's home. When she returned to her mobile home in Homestead on Wednesday morning, it was free of damage.

"That God!" Brooks said. "I'm glad that we finally caught a break."

Broward County Mayor Ben Graber said Ernesto, though a mild storm, was a good test run.

"Should we get another Wilma, I feel very confident that we'll be in very good shape," Graber said. "Whatever we invested this year, it was a good investment."

Graber said about 680 people remained at the county's six Red Cross shelters Wednesday morning, but many were starting for home.

Meanwhile, coastal residents of the Carolinas prepared to evacuate.

Three evacuation centers opened Wednesday in Charleston County, S.C., while forecasters said separate storm systems and Ernesto could soak the region over Labor Day weekend.

"We could get a clobbering," said National Weather Service forecaster Phil Badgett.