KEY WEST, Fla. Sep 19, 2005 — Officials ordered residents evacuated from the lower Florida Keys on Monday as Tropical Storm Rita headed toward the island chain, threatening to grow into a hurricane with a potential 8-foot storm surge.
The evacuation covered 40,000 people living from below Marathon to Key West. Visitors were ordered to clear out of the entire length of the low-lying Keys, which are connected by just one highway.
The weather was clear Monday morning but expected to deteriorate through the day with the approach of Rita's outermost bands of rain.
Hurricane warnings were posted for the Keys and the storm's eye was expected to pass between the islands and Cuba on Tuesday.
Rita, which strengthened Sunday into a tropical storm, had sustained wind of 60 mph as of 8 a.m., and could be a Category 1 hurricane by the time it passes the Keys, the National Hurricane Center said.
By the weekend, computer models projected that it could be in the northwest Gulf of Mexico near Texas, but people in areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina were warned it could veer in their direction instead. Katrina crossed South Florida into the Gulf last month, killing 11 people, before it turned northward to Louisiana and Mississippi.
Key West streets were quiet Monday morning as Mike Pettengill, 54, packed his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A resident of Stuart, he hoped to beat the rain and traffic heading north and wanted to be able to find gas before stations close or run dry.
"We walked by a bar (Sunday) and heard there was an evacuation. We were totally shocked. I couldn't believe it. Where did it come from?" he said.
Kelly Friend and two workers were boarding up her store in Key West, Audio Video in Paradise Inc., and painted a message on the plywood: "Hey bartender 1 Rita on the rocks to go!"
"Not that we're afraid of the hurricane, but we want to protect our investment," Friend said. "Plus it gives us an excuse to take a day off and drink."
Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. That makes this season already the fourth busiest since record-keeping began in 1851. The record is 21 tropical storms in 1933.