NAPLES, Florida - The Associated Press
Tropical Storm Fay rumbled toward Florida's southwest coast yesterday as residents with memories of a killer hurricane in 2004 took the precaution of shutting schools, government offices and many businesses.
With no major Florida hurricanes in the past two years, officials were worried that complacency could cost lives as they repeatedly urged people across the state to take Fay seriously.
After crossing the Florida Keys without causing major damage Monday, Fay was expected to lumber ashore along the southwestern portion of the state as a tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane. The warnings about Fay stirred unpleasant memories for many in and around Punta Gorda who rode out deadly Hurricane Charley in 2004.
"I am scared," said Monica Palanza, a Punta Gorda real estate agent who watched trees topple on her neighbors' homes when Charley reached Category 4 strength - the second-strongest level - just north of Punta Gorda in 2004. "You can never be prepared enough."
But others said they were relieved Fay was no Charley and took a wait-and-see attitude.
"After going through Charley, this doesn't seem nothing more than a gust of wind," said Jesse Gilmore, 34, who put up storm shutters Monday at a local business as a precaution.
The sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season would become a hurricane if it reaches sustained winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph).
At 2 a.m. EDT (0600GMT) yesterday, Fay was about 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of Naples and moving north at about 7 mph (11 kph). Sustained winds were near 60 mph (97 kph) with some higher gusts.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for southwestern Florida from Flamingo to just south of the Tampa Bay area. A warning means those conditions are likely within the warning area in the next 24 hours.
Schools, businesses closed:
Meanwhile, a tropical storm warning covered Florida's west coast from Anna Maria Island to Tarpon Springs, along the east coast from Flagler Beach southward and remained in effect for the Florida Keys.
As Fay headed toward the peninsula, schools and many businesses closed Monday, even miles (kilometers) to the east in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas.
Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers operated normally Monday, but airlines postponed about 140 flights yesterday, spokeswoman Victoria Moreland said.
Flooding posed a major concern if Fay heads up the peninsula, with rainfall amounts forecast between 4 and 10 inches (10 to 25 centimeters). Storm surge of 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 meters) above normal was also possible. The storm also could spawn dangerous tornadoes.
Warnings to people to take precautions were issued as Fay spread rain and sent wind gusts of up to 51 mph (82 kilometers) over the Keys on Monday.
Monroe County Mayor Mario Di Gennaro estimated 25,000 fled the Keys before Fay hit there Monday afternoon.
"This is not the type of storm that's going to rip off a lot of roofs or cause the type of damage we normally see in a large hurricane," said Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management chief.
However, Fugate said: "I've seen as many people die when I have a blob-shaped asymmetrical storm that they dismiss as not being very dangerous."
The state took every step to make sure it was ready. National Guard troops were at the ready and more were waiting in reserve, and 20 truckloads of tarps, 200 truckloads of water and 52 truckloads of food were available for distribution.
As it moved though the Caribbean, Fay was blamed for at least 14 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, including two babies who were found in a river after a bus crash. People as far north as the Tampa Bay region worried about a possible strike. In Ruskin, Paula Fuentes, 52, sat with her pregnant daughter and other neighborhood acquaintances, trying to decide whether to evacuate to a local shelter.
"I just don't know what to do," Fuentes said. "Stay here or go, when it gets bad."
But Al Goenner, 35, nailed plywood to the windows of a bicycle shop after Fay swept across the Florida Keys on Monday toward the mainland. He wasn't too worried.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem," Goenner said. "We just want to make sure it's not a problem."