Hurricane Georges lashed the Florida Keys Friday as the core of the menacing storm moved closer. The 105 mph winds sent waves crashing onto streets and knocked out power.
Shelters and hotels from Miami to Orlando filled up after more than 1 million people from Key West to Tampa were urged or even ordered to leave coastal and low-lying areas and mobile homes. The storm had already killed more than 300 people in the Caribbean. It was expected to attack the northern gulf coast after it leaves southern Florida."The water has been sucked out of the bay. There's a boat high and dry that's gotten loose and in the flats," said Marion Sargeant, who lives with her cousin in Key Largo on Florida Bay between the island chain and Everglades National Park. "There's normally 4 feet of water where the boat is sitting - and that's now in inches."
A hail of leaves, branches and palm fronds blew across the Overseas Highway in Marathon, in the middle Keys, and 76 mph gusts lifted rainwater off roofs. In Miami, where the smell of sea water spread 10 miles inland, bands of slanting rain repeatedly shot ashore.
"A big old tree fell on my house, crashed right down by my head so I figured I might as well come outside," Marc Hightower said as he stood outside a converted icehouse. "You're not any safer in an old wooden house."
The eye of the sprawling storm was expected to pass west of Key West by late morning - farther west than expected.
The slight shift meant a milder storm for the state's densely populated Atlantic coast, but "is probably the worst possible thing" for Key West, said Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The storm's harshest attack has been on the eastern edge.
Workers at Miami's zoo scrambled Thursday to get their animals safely indoors (see story on A8).
Even without the hurricane-force winds that had been feared, some 150,000 people lost power as the edges of the storm lashed the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas.
The eye of a hurricane often brings a storm surge, and a surge of 7 feet was forecast for the Keys. Key West's top elevation is only 14 feet, and some other islands top out at 7 feet.
"We are as ready as we can be, and we pray that the human and material cost will be limited," President Clinton said in Washington.
"It looks like Noah's ark in here," Vince Taporowski said this morning as he watched the roiling water from his home on Big Pine Key, north of Key West. "Noah had a good idea - bring two of everything. So are we." Among those staying in his home were his two grown children and their spouses, two grandchildren and two pet ferrets.
Taporowski and his family were among thousands of residents who stayed in the Keys despite the evacuation order.
"We order them to leave and if they decide to stay they're on their own," said Becky Herrin, Keys emergency management spokeswoman. "There's nothing we can do for them if they stay."
At 11 a.m., Georges' eye was about 15 miles south of Key West, where only a few cars ventured onto Duval Street, usually the hub of tourist activity. Electrical transformers boomed as they blew out.
A hurricane warning was posted for the Keys and the Gulf Coast north to Longboat Key, about 40 miles south of Tampa. The coast from Longboat Key to Bayport, about 80 miles total, was under a tropical storm warning - meaning a storm with winds of 39 mph to 74 mph. On the Atlantic coast, the hurricane warning was downgraded to a tropical-storm warning.
After hammering southern Florida and islands along its Gulf Coast, the storm was expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico, strengthening over the water with winds perhaps topping 110 mph.
The first signs of the hurricane arrived in Marathon in the middle Keys shortly before sunset Thursday, spawning the first of several waterspouts. As wind and rain became more steady, as many as 4,000 people lost power in Broward and Dade counties.
Schools, courts, state and federal offices and businesses were shut in many communities, and scores of buildings were shuttered with the familiar plywood of hurricane season.
About 2,500 members of the National Guard were ordered to be ready for hurricane assignments. Four C-130 cargo aircraft were reserved to fly troops to the Keys for post-storm security.