Hurricane Gordon Threatens Florida

Sunday, September 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Heavy rain fell across wide areas of Florida on Sunday as Hurricane Gordon charged toward the Gulf Coast with 75 mph wind, and residents of low-lying coastal areas were urged to evacuate.

Seven to 10 inches of rain was possible along the path of the storm Sunday, a day after Gordon deluged Cuba with up to 10 inches.

Gordon was expected to strike land late Sunday near Cedar Key, a group of islands about 80 miles northwest of Tampa, meteorologists said. However, the storm's unpredictability and direction changes left them urging residents of all coastal areas in Florida and Alabama to closely monitor its progress.

Gov. Jeb Bush put emergency response teams on standby Saturday, and disaster officials in five coastal counties urged voluntary evacuation of barrier islands and other areas prone to flooding. Coastal areas were warned of the possibility of a storm surge 7 to 10 feet above normal tide levels.

``It's gonna be a nuisance, bringing a lot of rain, possible flooding along the Gulf Coast with storm surge and possible tornadoes,'' said Chris Robbins, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The center posted tropical storm warnings Sunday along Florida's Gulf Coast from Bonita Beach just south of Fort Myers to Anna Maria Island, near Bradenton, and along the Atlantic Coast from Flagler Beach north to Brunswick, Ga. A hurricane watch was issued for a 50-mile stretch of the Florida Panhandle, from the Ochlockonee River west to Indian Pass.

Sunday's baseball game between Oakland and Tampa was postponed as a precaution. The Air Force and Coast Guard moved some airplanes from the Tampa area to airfields out of the storm's path.

As the sky turned gray over the Tampa Bay area Saturday, people didn't seem too concerned about the approaching storm. Along Clearwater Beach, only a few homeowners had boarded up their windows.

But Richard Lehfeldt recently moved to Tampa from New York City and wasn't sure what to expect. He bought plastic to cover his windows, plus duct tape, batteries and flashlights — just in case. ``I'll secure parts of the house that are vulnerable, then watch TV,'' he said.

Robbins, the meteorologist, said people shouldn't panic.

``It is a minimal hurricane,'' he said. ``Of course, I don't want to minimize its importance.''

On Sunday morning, Gordon was about 155 miles south-southwest of Cedar Key, and about 115 miles west-southwest of Tampa. It was moving north-northeast at about 16 mph and was expected to speed up toward the northeast.

Disaster officials in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties recommended voluntary evacuation of barrier islands and areas prone to flooding.

However, across the state on the Atlantic Coast, NASA decided Sunday morning to keep the space shuttle Discovery on its seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral instead of hauling it into its hangar. Gordon was expected to steer clear of the cape. Discovery is scheduled to blast off Oct. 5 on a space station construction mission.

In addition, the storm was not expected to interfere with Wednesday's landing of the shuttle Atlantis, said NASA flight director Wayne Hale.

In the Atlantic, Hurricane Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm and continued to weaken early Sunday. It was 415 miles south-southwest of Newfoundland with sustained wind near 65 mph and was expected to pass near eastern Newfoundland late Sunday.

Rip currents associated with Florence were blamed for at least three surf deaths Tuesday in North Carolina.