Even as Floridians still struggled with the destruction and misery left by Hurricanes Frances and Charley, tourists and residents in the Florida Keys had to pack their belongings and evacuate Thursday to avoid mighty Hurricane Ivan.
Forecasters said Ivan — which weakened slightly Thursday to nearly 150 mph winds — could reach the island chain as early as Sunday, making it the third hurricane to hit Florida in one month. The last time three hurricanes hit Florida in a single season was 1964, when Cleo, Dora and Isbell hit the state.
“Ivan has the potential to be worse than anything we’ve ever seen so far,” said Gov. Jeb Bush.
The latest storm sent a steady stream of motorists heading northbound on the Overseas Highway in the Keys, raising concern in parts of Florida that have already faced hurricane destruction and prompted long gas lines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Charley struck Southwest Florida on Aug. 13 with winds of 145 mph, causing an estimated $6.8 billion in damage and 27 deaths. Frances hit the state’s eastern coast early Sunday with 105 mph winds, leaving $2 billion to $4 billion in insured damage and at least 16 dead in the state. An electric worker died Thursday cleaning up Frances debris.
Should Ivan strike Florida, it would be the first time since 1950 that two major hurricanes — ones with top sustained winds of at least 111 mph — hit Florida so close together.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas urged residents to donate money to relief agencies such as the American Red Cross while state officials prepared for more round-the-clock work, trying to protect the peninsula from another battering.
“Disasters are like alligators,” Craig Fugate, Florida’s top emergency management official, told state workers in Tallahassee. “You don’t quit when you get tired, you quit when that alligator gets tired.”
Red Cross spokesman David Rudduck said the organization’s relief effort for Charley was expected to cost about $50 million and work on Frances relief could cost twice that much.
He said the group would “find a way” to help those afflicted by Ivan, “but we’re definitely going to need some help. We can’t do our job without the American people.”
Ivan has already killed at least 15 people in the Caribbean, making it the deadliest hurricane to hit there in a decade. With 90 percent of the homes in Grenada damaged, crime increased as looting erupted and a prison was destroyed, leaving criminals on the loose.
At 8 p.m. Thursday, Ivan’s center was about 325 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica with top sustained winds of 150 mph.
National Hurricane Center forecasters predict that Ivan could hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane, indicating winds of 131 to 155 mph, late Sunday or early Monday.
Monroe County emergency officials asked tourists to leave the Keys at 9 a.m. Thursday, the third visitor evacuation there in a month, following Charley and Frances. Mobile home residents were urged to begin evacuating at 6 p.m. Thursday, and other residents were under a mandatory evacuation order beginning Friday at 7 a.m.
A single highway links the low-lying islands with mainland Florida. The last time everyone in the Keys was ordered to evacuate was in 2001 for Hurricane Michelle, a 135 mph storm that wound up missing a direct hit on the chain. Officials estimated that only 15 percent of Keys residents left then.
“I don’t think that people will think twice when we tell them it’s a Four heading right at us. I think they will be pretty responsive,” Monroe County emergency manager Irene Toner said.
Some businesses have seen a steep drop in the number of tourists since Charley and Frances. Hog’s Breath Saloon in downtown Key West has had its worst six weeks of business since 1988, general manager Charlie Bauer said.
Bauer said he normally rides out hurricanes in the Keys, but not this time: “I won’t even hang around for a Category 3.”
Ivan sent many residents in South Florida forming lengthy lines at gas stations, many of which closed temporarily after Frances. Bush said supplies in storage tanks were significantly higher than they were before Frances, and vessels were ready to bring in more fuel to ports in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.
But at a Chevron station in Deerfield Beach, that was of little comfort to 32-year-old Roz White, who watched as her car ran out of gas while she sat in line.
“I’m ready to go back up north and deal with the snow,” White said. “At least with snow, you know you can get out.”
Many residents said it would take months to ease the anxieties of rebuilding their homes and lives. State officials said about one million homes and businesses were without power Thursday.
“The panic level is through the roof now,” said Paul Hawley, 35, of Deerfield Beach, who planned to go to New York to ride out the storm.
As residents brace for yet another major hurricane, relief continues to pour in to the state. President Bush signed a $2 billion disaster relief package and said he would seek additional funding.
Even California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered help, sending emergency workers to aid in the rebuilding effort. Twenty-five other states have transferred workers to Florida to help with the aftermath of the storms.
Remnants of Frances continued to create problems Thursday.
In Ohio, where up to 7 inches of rain fell, two deaths were attributed to the storm. In Asheville, N.C., tens of thousands of people remained without drinking water early Thursday after a major water line from a reservoir washed out.