Hurricane Georges raked the Florida Keys with sheets of rain and 105 mph winds Friday, destroying houseboats and tearing off roofs but sparing Florida the kind of devastation that left at least 300 dead across the Caribbean.
No deaths or serious injuries were reported.Georges may not be finished with Florida, however. The storm moved into the Gulf of Mexico, where it is expected to pick up speed over warm water, and could hit somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and Louisiana by Saturday night.
During the day, water surged over the curving, 120-mile string of islands that make up the Florida Keys as residents who ignored evacuation orders huddled in closets. The eye of the storm passed near Key West about midday, offering a glimpse of sunshine before the winds returned.
By afternoon, though, Key West native Sandy Velasco was out walking her dogs. "I've lived through worse," she said.
After more than 1.4 million people in southern Florida had been warned to clear out, the storm ended up passing well clear of the densely populated Atlantic Coast, to the relief of people in Miami and especially communities like Homestead and Florida City that were nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Those cities wound up only wet and windy.
"We were expecting the worst and got the best," said John Mizuik, who fled his trailer in Homestead for the safety of a restaurant that served as a shelter and police cafeteria. "It was a comfort, believe me."
At 11 p.m., the hurricane was centered about 115 miles west-northwest of Key West with winds of 105 mph, with hurricane-force winds extended out about 85 miles. It was moving about 8 mph to the west-northwest. More than 180,000 were ordered to evacuate from the Florida Panhandle.
President Clinton declared a state of emergency in Florida and authorized federal assistance while the storm was still blowing across the state. "We are as ready as we can be, and we pray that the human and material cost will be limited," he said.
The full extent of the damage was not immediately known, but all the Keys were without electrical power, and 140,000 were left without power in the Miami area. Airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale reopened after shutting down for the worst of Georges. Tornadoes spun off by the storm hit hundreds of miles away.