CLEARWATER, Fla. – With a powerful hurricane whirling toward Florida’s densely populated middle Gulf Coast on Thursday, authorities ordered the largest evacuation in history in the Tampa Bay area, telling hundreds of thousands of people to seek higher ground before Hurricane Charley storms ashore sometime Friday.
The hurricane was expected to hit Cuba late Thursday. As in Florida, many areas on the island were evacuated.
The path of the storm has changed course westward, meaning it should make landfall further north on the Florida peninsula than originally predicted – somewhere near Tampa and St. Petersburg, both major metropolitan areas.
Frank Lepore, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Charley’s center, packing winds of 100 mph or more, should make landfall in the vicinity of Clearwater.
The state had braced just the day before for tropical storm Bonnie, which ended up skirting the coast. Ben Nelson, a meteorologist with the state, described it as having “minimal winds, nothing over about 40 miles an hour” even along the coast.
“Bonnie brushed by us without being too much of a concern, but we are waiting on Charley – it has the potential to become a Category 3 hurricane, and we are watching very closely to see what areas will be affected,” said Erin Geraghty, of the Florida Department of Emergency Management.
Officials said they were especially worried by the possibility of freakishly high tides, or storm surge, whipped up by Charley’s potent winds. This area’s last major hurricane, in 1921, caused a 10 1/2 -foot wall of water in Tampa Bay. If a wave that size were to hit today, it could cause enormous destruction because of much greater development and population.
“The storm surge is the biggest danger,” said Gary Vickers, Pinellas County director of emergency management.As Charley drew closer, evacuations were ordered up and down Florida’s western coast.
Residents of Sanibel and Captiva, slender strands off Southwest Florida that are especially popular with seashell collectors, were given until midnight to leave. Other wispy barrier islands to the north, in Manatee and Sarasota counties, were also ordered emptied of people. Mobile home owners in Manatee County were told to seek more secure shelter.
Gov. Jeb Bush, who declared a statewide emergency Wednesday, urged Floridians in a television interview not to take the oncoming storm lightly. He noted that meteorologists were predicting Charley would become even more potent.
“Take it seriously,” said Bush, who experienced a major hurricane with his wife and children when he was a developer in the Miami area. “A Category 3 storm can be deadly.”
In Pinellas County, a peninsula bound by Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, emergency officials ordered a mandatory evacuation by 6 p.m. Thursday of waterfront properties and all other neighborhoods located below 17 feet above sea level. It was the first so-called Category C evacuation in county history.
“There’s an awful lot of people looking to move swiftly,” said Maggie D. Hall, a spokeswoman for the county government. “We’re anticipating a mass exodus.”
Floridians are often blase about tropical storms, but worries about Charley put tens of thousands of people on the road and heading inland more than 24 hours before the hurricane’s expected landfall. The Howard Frankland Bridge, the major connection between Tampa and St. Petersburg, was bumper to bumper eastward by 6 p.m. Thursday.
“Basically, if you can see the water, you’re too close,” said Larry Gispert, in charge of emergency operations in Hillsborough County.