Hurricane Rita Lashes Florida Keys

9-20-05 - Rita strengthened into a hurricane on Tuesday as it lashed the Florida Keys with heavy rain and strong wind, threatening the island chain with a storm surge of up to 7 feet and sparking fears the storm could eventually bring new misery to the Gulf Coast.

Rita became a Category 1 hurricane with sustained top wind of 75 mph during the morning, said meteorologist Michelle Mainelli at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. She said the wind speed was confirmed by data collected by a reconnaissance plane sent into the storm.

Thousands of residents and tourists had fled the Keys in advance of Rita, which forecasters said could dump up to 15 inches of rain on parts of the low-lying island chain.

Rita promised to gain more strength as it crossed the warm Gulf of Mexico for a weekend landfall, most likely in Texas although Louisiana could end up in its path.

Officials of Galveston, Texas _ nearly 900 miles from Key West _ were already calling for a voluntary evacuation. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged everyone in the southwest part of the state to prepare to evacuate.

Hurricane warnings were posted for the Keys and Miami-Dade County, the National Hurricane Center said. Residents and visitors were ordered to clear out of the Keys, and voluntary evacuation orders were posted for some 134,000 Miami-Dade residents of coastal areas such as Miami Beach.

At 8 a.m. EDT, Rita was centered about 100 miles east-southeast of Key West. It was moving between west and west-northwest at nearly 15 mph, according to the hurricane center.

Not everyone had fled the low-lying Keys.

Key West resident Linda McAlarney moved to temporary quarters at a local hotel and walked her dog, Onyx, just after daybreak Tuesday during a lull in the storm. Few others were out amid Key West's boarded-up shops and bars.

"I think evacuating is the right thing to do, and I probably should have done that," McAlarney said.


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