KEY WEST, Fla. – Florida Keys officials closed schools, opened shelters and urged visitors to leave as Tropical Storm Fay threatened to strengthen into a hurricane Sunday, but residents and some tourists seemed in no hurry to evacuate.
Traffic leaving Key West and the Lower Keys on Sunday afternoon was light but steady as the sky darkened with storm clouds and the National Weather Service issued watches and warnings.
Authorities said traffic was heavier in the Upper Keys, where the 110-mile, mostly two-lane highway that runs through the island chain meets the mainland. The Florida Highway Patrol sent in extra troopers to assist, and tolls were suspended on parts of the northbound turnpike.
Fay could start pelting parts of the Keys and South Florida late today or early Tuesday as a strong tropical storm or minimal hurricane. Aside from wind damage, most of the islands sit at sea level and could face some limited flooding from Fay’s storm surge.
Officials in the Keys and elsewhere planned to open shelters and encouraged or ordered people who live in low-lying areas and on boats to evacuate. Schools in the Keys will be closed today and Tuesday.
Keys officials had issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors earlier Sunday and had asked those who had not yet arrived to postpone their trips. Officials said hotels and businesses won’t be forced to remove visitors, but they should use common sense.
Fay, the sixth storm of the Atlantic season, was expected to strengthen to a hurricane by the time its center crossed Cuba and begin approaching the Keys. Fay has killed at least five people after battering Haiti and the Dominican Republic over the weekend.
Authorities in four Cuban provinces evacuated nearly 5,000 residents from low-lying communities and pulled fishing boats out of the water, while setting up temporary shelters and food distribution centers.
Cuban officials suspended traditional carnival celebrations in the province of Cienfuegos, and state television showed images of workers moving equipment for precautionary reasons at ports and oil refineries. State media said authorities were ready to “protect” the 24,000 foreign tourists in the famous beach resort of Varadero.
At 11 p.m. EDT, the storm’s center was located about 235 miles south-southeast of Key West and was moving northwest at about 10 mph, with maximum sustained wind speeds near 50 mph.
Forecasters expected the storm to begin moving to the north in the next day or two. Current models show the storm moving north along the Gulf coast of Florida, although forecasters still didn’t know where it would make landfall.
Some Key West businesses began putting up hurricane shutters Sunday, but tourists and residents still strolled through town, where the weather alternated from sunny to occasional downpours with light wind gusts.
Diego Sainz and friend Ron Norgard, who were visiting from Omaha, sat outside the La Concha Hotel in Key West, smoking cigarettes and waiting for their wives to return from shopping.
Sainz joked he was going to charge Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the extra money his wife was spending because they couldn’t leave.
“Somebody’s gotta pay,” he quipped.