Residents, Tourists Flee Florida's West Coast

With a "scary, scary" Hurricane Charley (search) zeroing in on Florida's west coast Friday, state officials urged about a million tourists and residents to evacuate and avoid the path of a storm that could submerge parts of this city's downtown and other neighboring areas.

Charley's expected 120 mph top sustained winds and massive storm surge could devastate coastal and low-lying areas in Tampa (search) and St. Petersburg (search). Everything from waterfront condominium towers to vulnerable mobile homes were in danger on the Gulf Coast.

Charley's center was expected to pass west of the Florida Keys early Friday before hitting the Tampa Bay area later in the day, dumping heavy rain and possibly spawning sporadic tornadoes, Hugh Cobb, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Thursday. About 6.5 million of Florida's 17 million residents were in Charley's projected path, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

"It does have the potential of devastating impact. ... This is a scary, scary thing," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who had declared a state of emergency.

State meteorologist Ben Nelson said the surge could reach up to 16 feet in the Tampa area if Charley hits at 120 mph, making it a major hurricane at Category 3 strength.

At 2 a.m., the hurricane's eye was over Cuba, 14 miles west of downtown Havana.

Forecasters said Charley had top sustained winds of about 105 mph. It was moving north-northwest near 14 mph and was expected to strengthen, meteorologists said. Hurricane force winds extended outward 30 miles from the eye; tropical storm force winds went out 125 miles.

Most of the evacuations were in the counties of Hillsborough, which contains Tampa, and Pinellas, a peninsula that contains St. Petersburg. All residents of MacDill Air Force Base, on another peninsula in Tampa Bay, were ordered out with only essential personnel remaining. MacDill is home to U.S. Central Command, the nerve center of the war in Iraq.

"MacDill Air Force Base will probably be mostly underwater and parts of downtown Tampa could be underwater if we have a Category 3," Nelson said. "In a Category 3, you can almost get to the point where Pinellas County becomes an island."

Gary Vickers, Pinellas' emergency management chief, told people in evacuation zones there would be "a period of time where if you stay behind and you change your mind and you want to be rescued, no one can help you.

"We aren't going to go out on a suicide mission," he said.

Heavy traffic flowed Thursday afternoon away from the coast near Tampa in Florida's biggest evacuation request since 1999, when Hurricane Floyd prompted an order for a record 1.3 million people to evacuate the state's east coast.

In the Florida Keys, visitors and mobile home residents followed orders to leave the entire 100-mile-long island chain.

Many residents tried to prepare for the worst, buying plywood to board up homes and stocking up on water, canned food and batteries to ride out Charley.

Beth Ciombor of Sarasota was at a Home Depot Thursday loading two sheets of plywood onto the top of her minivan while her 2-year-old son watched.

"It's very threatening," Ciombor said. "I'm on the verge of tears. It's so frightening."

Power companies said they were mobilizing thousands of workers to prepare for widespread electricity outages, and out-of-state crews were being readied to rush to Florida.

If Charley stays on course, it would be the first time back-to-back tropical storms hit Florida since 1906. On Thursday, Tropical Storm Bonnie came ashore in the Florida Panhandle, but its top sustained winds of 50 mph caused little damage. It weakened into a depression late Thursday and was no longer a threat, Cobb said.