KEY LARGO, Fla. – Tourists and residents throughout the Florida Keys (search) were sent packing Thursday to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Ivan (search), even as millions of disaster-stricken residents struggled to pick up the pieces from Hurricanes Frances and Charley.
Forecasters said Ivan — which weakened slightly early Friday to near 145 mph — could reach the island chain as early as Sunday, making it the third hurricane to strike Florida in a month. The last time three hurricanes hit Florida in single season was 1964.
Ivan reached 160 mph at one point Thursday, and has already killed at least 23 people as it tore through the Caribbean on its steady march toward the Florida coast. The storm was headed straight for Jamaica, where officials urged a half million people to evacuate.
The storm's menacing advance and the evacuation orders in the Keys signaled the frightening reality that Florida faces as it deals with the prospect of yet another hurricane strike.
"This is getting ridiculous," said Eleanor Sharkey, who lives with four grandchildren in West Palm Beach and who had her roof torn apart and power knocked out by Frances. "I'm petrified, just petrified. Oh God, I need help. I have no milk. I can't get proper food. I have nothing nourishing for the children. When will this end?"
While forecasters view the Keys as Ivan's prime target, the storm could shift to anywhere in Florida and possibly all the way up to South Carolina. Gov. Jeb Bush said he was not working with a "doomsday scenario" in preparing for Ivan, but added that officials and residents have no choice but to prepare for a third hurricane.
"Maybe someone creative in Hollywood could come up with something like this, but this is past my imagination," Bush said.
Even normally stalwart Keys residents seemed ready to pack up and leave. Gas stations saw a steady flow of traffic and dozens of sport utility vehicles hauled boats on trailers in a northbound trek to avoid the storm's predicted path.
Deborah Turner decided to take no chances, packing up her belongings and her golden Labrador and charting plans for a long journey to Tallahassee.
"A gut feeling is telling me to get the heck out of Dodge," Turner said in the parking lot of a Publix Super Market, where her white minivan was piled high with blankets and pillows.
Charley struck southwest Florida on Aug. 13 with winds of 145 mph, causing an estimated $6.8 billion in damage and 27 deaths. Frances hit the state's eastern coast early Sunday with 105 mph winds, leaving $2 billion to $4 billion in insured damage and at least 16 dead in the state. The death toll rose by one Thursday when an electric worker died cleaning up debris.
After crossing the state, Frances moved into the Gulf of Mexico. It then hit northwest Florida as a strong, wet tropical storm before moving into Georgia and northward into the eastern United States, where widespread flooding and several deaths have occurred.
National Hurricane Center forecasters predict that Ivan could hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane, with winds of 131 to 155 mph, late Sunday or early Monday. At 2 a.m. EDT, Ivan's center was near latitude 15.7 north, longitude 73.8 west, or about 250 miles southeast of Jamaica.
"Ivan has the potential to be worse than anything we've ever seen so far," Bush said of a hurricane that is already the worst to hit the Caribbean in a decade.
Many residents said it will take months to ease the anxieties of rebuilding their homes and their lives following the double dose of hurricanes. State officials said about 1 million homes and businesses were without power Thursday. Flood warnings continued in several counties, half-ripe fruit littered citrus groves and the remains of roofs, sheds and fishing docks still lay scattered across the ground.
"Look at this," said Gloria Serrano, who toured her mother-in-law's damaged West Palm Beach mobile home. "There's no water, there's no electricity, there's sewage on the ground and there are trees on my mother-in-law's roof. I'm very worried."
In the Keys, all tourists and people in recreational vehicles and mobile homes were ordered Thursday to clear out for the third time in less than a month. Monroe County's 79,000 residents were urged to prepare to leave Friday on U.S. 1, a mostly two-lane road and bridge system linking the Miami area to Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States.
"It's just something about that name Ivan that really gets me," said Scott Simmons, owner of the biggest resort in the upper Keys. "It doesn't sound as if we have any good news."