Florida Keys mostly deserted as Hurricane Ivan wobbles on its course near Jamaica

Saturday, September 11th 2004, 9:33 am
By: News On 6

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ A slight westward ``wobble'' by Hurricane Ivan gave storm-weary Florida a tiny glimmer of hope Saturday, but the still-threatened Keys stood mostly boarded up, deserted by evacuating residents and tourists well on their way to safety.

Ivan and its 150 mph wind were still a couple of days away, but many residents and tourists had already driven north to the mainland. Before leaving, fatigued residents put up shutters and boarded windows with plywood as business dropped to a trickle in the tourism-dependent island chain.

``Charley hit and the season died,'' said Jose Moya, a clerk at Millie's Sundries in Key West. ``It's going to be a ghost town for the rest of summer _ if we make it.''

Monroe County officials ordered an evacuation of the entire 100-mile-long Keys, which barely rise out of the water and are extremely vulnerable to storm surge. It is the island chain's third evacuation in a month for tourists and first in three years for its 79,000 residents.

However, some residents said Saturday they had decided to brave the storm.

Denise D'Elia said she was not underestimating the potential power of the storm, but was watching the homes of neighbors and did not want to leave behind her pets.

``It's going to be more than we've ever seen. I didn't want to be stuck on the road _ you, me and five cats stuck on the road in central Florida,'' D'Elia said, nodding to her husband, Rob Marvin, as they rode their bicycles Saturday morning near the large red, black and yellow buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental United States, only 90 miles from Cuba.

Ivan was centered about 60 miles south of Montego Bay, Jamaica, Saturday morning and moving west-northwest at 8 mph. Hurricane Center forecasters said Ivan ``wobbled'' west a few miles south of Jamaica, possibly sparing the island the worst. But forecasters warned it could still move back to its predicted course and hit the state.

Ivan had killed 39 people, mostly in Grenada.

Ivan was forecast to strike Cuba and then either hit the Keys directly on Monday or pass near enough for the islands to feel hurricane-force wind, said Richard Knabb, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

From there, Ivan is expected to move north in the Gulf of Mexico, reaching north Florida on Tuesday.

``But that could be anywhere from Jacksonville to Pensacola,'' Knabb said.

Meanwhile, on Florida's east coast, hundreds of thousands of Frances victims were still without power in the summer heat. Thousands dealt with overflowing sewers in Palm Beach County. About 767,000 homes and businesses still lacked power.

Throughout the state, memories of the previous storms that killed a total of 50 people in Florida and knocked out power to millions caused residents to line up in droves at gas stations and supermarkets. Officials said gas companies and retailers were trying to avoid the shortages that plagued areas during Charley and Frances.

Monroe County officials weren't sure how many people heeded the evacuation order. Traffic leaving the Keys on the Overseas Highway was about double normal levels Friday, officials said.

``There are some people in Key West, they want to stay and see what Category 4 looks like and feels like,'' said county emergency manager Irene Toner. ``That's a concern for us.''

Florida has not been hit by three hurricanes in a single season since 1964, and this season has been the worst in Florida since 1992. Charley, which hit Aug. 13, and Frances, which hit Sunday, caused up to $20 billion in combined damage in Florida.