Bonnie hits Fla. as residents brace for Charley



Hurricane Charley was predicted to strike early Friday.
APALACHICOLA, Fla. (AP) -- Tropical Storm Bonnie began to make landfall in Florida's panhandle today, bringing light rain and wind to the area, while residents in the Florida Keys and southwest Florida braced for its stronger brother, Hurricane Charley.
Bonnie's disorganized center inched toward the coast with winds near 50 mph, bringing with it the possibility of heavy rains and flooding to already-soaked areas of the panhandle, which was under a tropical storm warning.
A light but steady rain fell in Apalachicola at late morning. The wind had picked up slightly, though storm-force winds were not expected to arrive until later in the day.
To the south, Hurricane Charley, whose sustained wind strengthened to 90 mph this morning, was predicted to strike the Keys and southwest Florida early Friday. Hurricane watches or warnings were extended to include most of Florida's Gulf Coast.
Evacuation
A state of emergency was declared for all of Florida as the one-two punch of Bonnie and then Charley moved closer, the first time the state has faced such a potentially messy plight in almost a century. Schools and government offices were closed, and Gov. Jeb Bush activated the Florida National Guard ahead of the storms.
A steady line of traffic drove north off the Keys late Wednesday as tourists followed orders to evacuate the entire 100-mile-long island chain. Officials expanded the order today to include a mandatory evacuation of mobile homes in the lower Keys.
The lone road to the mainland, the Overseas Highway, was blocked by an accident for more than an hour this morning, slowing the evacuation.
Because the panhandle is already soaked from days of rain, some low-lying areas there may have to be evacuated if there's flooding, said Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management director.
"Residents should make sure they're getting prepared," said Daniel Brown, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "They're both something people should be watching."
Double-whammy
Such a double-whammy hasn't happened in Florida since Oct. 17, 1906, when two tropical storms hit the state, said Ken Reeves, the senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, a commercial forecasting center.
According to Hurricane Center projections, both storms could spread rain along the East Coast after hitting Florida, and flood watches extended north to Pennsylvania and New York. For North Carolina, the heavy rain from the storms was coming just a week after Hurricane Alex damaged parts of that state's Outer Banks.
In Key West, the electronic sign at the Waffle House scrolled a message to the storm, "Stay Away Charley." Plywood and metal storm shutters graced only a few homes and businesses and most streets were quiet.
Lisa Kaminski, a Key West native who manages a Days Inn there, said that while guests were told to leave, she and her employees weren't too worried about Charley. "We're staying," she said. "This isn't a big one."
Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley asked bars, shops and restaurants to shut down at 10 p.m. Wednesday, but many remained open past midnight. Raymond Moffitan, who wore a velvet hot dog bun hat, barked out offers of hot dogs and chili dogs for a "Hurricane Special -- $2."
Charley's path
In the Caribbean, Charley headed directly for the Cayman Islands and was expected to travel over western Cuba on its track toward Florida. Western Cuba was under a hurricane watch while Jamaica and the Cayman Islands had warnings.
The storms forced ships to change their routes in Florida, which has the world's busiest cruise ship ports. Carnival Cruise Lines reshuffled the ports of call for several ships to avoid the storms, and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. was doing the same, officials said.
In Islamorada, in the northern Keys, Lou Anne Settle and Jordan Davis shrugged off the hurricane, sipping wine and gazing at the sunset along the marina where they live in a houseboat. They had no plans to leave.
"It's a little early to be worried," Davis said, before raising her glass and toasting, "to the hurricane -- to Charley."
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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