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Floridians stock up on food and gas as Tropical Storm Ernesto nears

Updated:
MIAMI (AP) -- Florida residents rushed to fill their prescriptions and stood in long lines for gasoline, food and other supplies Monday as officials warned people not to wait for Tropical Storm Ernesto to become a hurricane again before taking precautions.

Forecasters said Ernesto could grow back into a hurricane in the warm waters off Cuba and come ashore in South Florida as early as Tuesday night, exactly one year after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast.

It would be the first hurricane to hit the United States this year.

Memories of Katrina and the seven hurricanes that have struck Florida since 2004 were fresh in the minds of many.

"Make sure you have the supplies for the 72 hours after the storm," Gov. Jeb Bush warned people in Tallahassee, a day after declaring a state of emergency for all Florida. "A hurricane's a hurricane, and it has a devastation we've already seen. All you
have to do is rewind to last year and see."

Pedro Ballesteros, 40, carried two new six-gallon gas tanks out of a Home Depot for his home generator.

"Every year we prepare a little more because we're learning from our past ordeals," he said. "I'm taking care of everything that's important -- flashlights, batteries, gasoline."

Forecasters issued a tropical storm warning Monday afternoon for all of South Florida's eastern coast, north to Vero Beach, as well as the Keys and the Everglades. A warning means tropical storm activity is expected within 24 hours. About 400 miles of the state's densely populated Atlantic coast were under a hurricane watch, issued when such conditions could occur within 36 hours.

At 8 p.m. EDT, the fifth named storm of the hurricane season had top sustained winds of 40 mph, 1 mph above the minimum to be a tropical storm and down from 75 mph Sunday, the National Hurricane Center said. It was centered over Cuba, about 30 miles east of
Camaguey, and about 324 miles southeast from Key West. It was moving west-northwest near 11 mph.

Over the weekend, Ernesto became the first hurricane of the Atlantic season and lashed the Dominican Republic and Haiti. One person was reported killed along Haiti's southern coast.

There were no immediate reports of any damage or injuries in Cuba. The government regularly undertakes mass evacuations before tropical storms and hurricanes. This time, Cubans moved cattle to higher ground, tourists were evacuated from hotels, and baseball
games were rescheduled for earlier in the day in Havana.

The Bahamas on Monday ordered boats in southern islands to stay in port. The island chain had a tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch in effect for western islands close to Florida's coast.

Forecaster Richard Knabb at the hurricane center in Miami urged people not to become complacent. "Just because the system is not a hurricane now, doesn't mean it can't be a hurricane later," he said.

In the Keys, visitors were ordered out, and authorities planned to evacuate sick and elderly people to Miami. Mobile home residents in the Keys were also urged to clear out. Miami-Dade County opened a shelter for people from the Keys.

Some Keys residents and business owners put plywood over windows or installed hurricane shutters as tourists struggled to get flights out.

As of midafternoon, no large-scale evacuations were ordered on the Florida mainland.

NASA dropped plans to launch the space shuttle on Tuesday and was prepared to roll Atlantis back to its giant hangar if necessary. Cruise ship companies diverted several liners to avoid the storm.

Many Florida residents rushed to stores to gather supplies and fill prescriptions. Motorists had to wait up to an hour and a half at several gas stations across South Florida.

Adrian Scarani, manager of a Marathon service station on a busy intersection in Miami-Dade County, ran out of regular gasoline. "It was crazy here this morning," he said.

Because of the demand at gasoline stations, the governor cautioned residents "not to overdue it" as they stock up on fuel. Bush urged motorists to drive as little as possible but added, "people don't need to overreact."

Kathleen Campos shopped for food and water at a Winn-Dixie in Miami and was also worried about getting enough cash, which might be hard to find after a storm if the electricity is knocked out.

Counties along the coast offered sandbags and got ready to distribute ice and water. Broward and Miami-Dade counties canceled school on Tuesday so that students would not get caught in the storm on their way home.

James Krie, 44, a Key West resident and general contractor, seemed unconcerned about the brewing storm. He acknowledged that outsiders might not understand.

"I feel like they look at us and say, `You dummies live down there,"' he said.
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