0

Tropical Storm Fay moves in on Florida Keys

KEY WEST, Fla. Key West awoke to almost empty streets and light rain Monday ahead of approaching Tropical Storm Fay, while public works crews cleared sidewalks of newspaper stands that could become projectiles in high winds.

All tourists were urged to evacuate but many bars and restaurants remained open, even if crowds were considerably thinner than typical for this time of year.

Not many seemed very worried about the approaching storm, which wasn't expected to pack much of a punch compared to previous ones.

'But it's a good opportunity to practice like it was the big one,' Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said Sunday night.

Traffic leaving Key West and the Lower Keys Sunday night and Monday morning remained light but steady.

A hurricane watch was in effect for most of the Keys and along Florida's west coast to Tarpon Springs.

Early Monday, a tropical storm warning was issued for Florida's east coast from Jupiter Inlet southward and along Florida's west coast from Bonita Beach southward, including Lake Okeechobee.

A tropical storm warning remained in effect for the Florida Keys from Ocean Reef to Key West. A hurricane watch was in effect for most of the Keys and along Florida's west coast to Tarpon Springs. A tropical storm watch was in effect for from north of Jupiter Inlet to Sebastian Inlet.

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 help and tolls were suspended on parts of the northbound turnpike.

Fay could start pelting parts of the Keys and South Florida late Monday 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 opened shelters and encouraged or ordered people who live in low-lying areas and on boats to evacuate. Schools in the Keys were to be closed Monday and Tuesday.

Keys officials Sunday had issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors and 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 named storm of the 2008 Atlantic season, was expected to approach hurricane strength after crossing Cuba and begin approaching the Keys. Fay has already killed at least five people after battering Haiti and the Dominican Republic with weekend torrential rains and floods.

At 5 a.m. EDT Monday, the storm's center was located over central Cuba and about 155 miles south-southeast of Key West and was moving toward the north-northwest near 12 mph. Maximum sustained wind speeds were near 50 mph. Forecasters expected the storm to begin moving to the north soon.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was briefed Sunday on the storm by emergency officials after flying into Orlando for campaign events. A Monday fundraiser in Miami was canceled as a precaution.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Saturday as an emergency operations center opened in Tallahassee. He said 9,000 Florida National Guard troops were available, but only 500 were on active duty Sunday.

Maria Perez, 50, of Key West, prayed at a town shrine known as The Grotto, where an etching on a stone reads, 'As long as the Grotto stands, Key West will never again experience the full brunt of a hurricane.' It was built in 1922 by nuns outside a Roman Catholic church, three years after a catastrophic storm. So far, the 86-year-old invocation has worked.

'I pray not to have the storm,' Perez said. 'I am not afraid.'

Key West was last seriously affected by a hurricane in 2005, when Category 3 Wilma sped past. The town escaped widespread wind damage, but a storm surge flooded hundreds of homes and some businesses. The deadliest storm to hit the island was a Category 4 hurricane in 1919 that killed up to 900 people, many of them offshore on ships that sank.

---

Associated Press writers Christine Armario in Tampa and Lisa Orkin Emmanuel in Miami contributed to this report.