WEATHER Florida braces as Bonnie and Charley close in
A double-whammy hasn't happened in Florida since 1906.
KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) -- A state of emergency was declared for all of Florida today as the one-two punch of a tropical storm and then a hurricane raged closer, the first time the state has faced such a potentially messy plight in almost 98 years.
Tropical Storm Bonnie was forecast to hit the state this afternoon, at least 12 hours earlier than Hurricane Charley. Schools and government offices were closed and Gov. Jeb Bush activated the Florida National Guard to prepare for the worst.
Hurricane and tropical storm warnings stretched from the panhandle to northwest Florida. A steady line of traffic drove north off the Keys late Wednesday as visitors followed orders to evacuate the entire 100-mile-long island chain.
Because the panhandle is already soaked from days of rain, some low-lying areas 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."
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. Heavy rain from the storms was forecast for North Carolina, just a week after Hurricane Alex damaged parts of that state's Outer Banks.
At 5 a.m., Bonnie was centered about 175 miles west-southwest of Apalachicola and moving northeast near 16 mph. Bonnie was expected to make landfall along the central panhandle this afternoon, when isolated tornadoes were also possible, forecasters said.
The storm's maximum sustained winds dropped from 65 mph Wednesday to 50 mph early today. Bonnie could dump 4 to 6 inches of rain, leading to coastal storm surges 1 to 3 feet above normal, forecasters said.
Charley had top sustained winds of about 85 mph and was expected to strengthen. It was centered about 100 miles east-southeast of Grand Cayman, and was moving northwest near 16 mph.
Charley was expected to make landfall early Friday. A hurricane warning was issued in the Keys from the Dry Tortugas to the Seven Mile Bridge and in southwest Florida from East Cape Sable to Bonita Beach.
Charley was expected to remain at hurricane force when it passes over mainland Florida, but could go anywhere from Miami to the panhandle, forecasters said. Three to six inches of rain were expected, with higher amounts possible, forecaster Daniel Brown said at the hurricane center.
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.
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."
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, 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."