Ivan Forecasted to Hit Fla. Panhandle

Spurred by fresh images of destruction in the Caribbean and two earlier hurricanes, residents of Florida's Panhandle took no chances as forecasts put them in the path of powerful Hurricane Ivan (search).

The weekend's crisp, sunny weather belied a danger that still could be days away, but people in the rural fishing villages and beach communities along the Gulf of Mexico (search) got serious about boarding up windows, stocking food and worrying. Emergency officials were considering evacuations.

"It's a scary-looking hammer knocker," said 57-year-old Billy Porter, a building contractor who was gearing up for a day of fishing. Porter said he's prepared to ride out the storm at his log house about 4 miles from the water.

"I've got a generator for my TV — as long I've got my TV, I'm all right," he said.

Forecasters said Ivan, which strengthened back to a Category 5 storm Sunday night, could strike somewhere along a huge swath of the Gulf Coast by Wednesday. They advised residents from west-central Florida to the Louisiana marshes to be leery of a storm which already has killed at least 65 people and injured hundreds in the Caribbean.

At 2 a.m. Monday, Ivan had top sustained winds near 160 mph and was centered about 160 miles southeast of Cuba, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The minimum for Category 5 status is 156 mph wind.

The storm was moving toward the west-northwest at 9 mph and was expected to turn gradually toward the northwest. The storm was to the north of Cuba's extreme western tip early Monday.

State and federal officials and disaster relief crews who already have dealt with Hurricanes Frances and Charley were preparing for Ivan. Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown said federal aid is in place to help with recovery from the storm.

Several Panhandle counties were expected Monday to decide whether to evacuate.

While Florida's Gulf coast residents were on alert, people in the Keys and populous South Florida welcomed the news that Ivan's westward-shift likely spared them a direct hit.

Mandatory evacuations were still in effect Sunday for tourists and the roughly 79,000 residents of the 120-mile island chain, but that could change Monday.

On Sunday, a few Key West restaurants reopened, beachgoers went kite surfing and shoppers returned to grocery stores.

Tom Bordovsky, 51, was among the Key West residents who never left, saying travel was too expensive. He thought evacuating was necessary, but worried about the effects of so many close calls.

"It's going to harden the hearts of a lot of people because you can only cry wolf so many times," he said.

Keys officials estimated Sunday that the island chain could lose between $16 million to $20 million in tourism-related sales by Thursday, when they're encouraging tourists to return to the island chain. Already, officials said the evacuation from Hurricane Charley last month cost the Keys $35 million in tourism sales.

Susan Poston, a manager at the Flora-Bama lounge on the Alabama-Florida line, said she hopes Ivan goes to Texas, but wouldn't wish the hurricane on anyone. She said some customers from Florida have been in, but not in much of a party mood because of all the devastation in that state from Hurricanes Frances and Charley.

"It's just depressing," she said.

Insured losses from Hurricane Charley last month were estimated at just under $7 billion, and those from Frances were pegged at $2 billion to $4 billion.

About 335,000 homes and businesses in 28 counties still had no electricity Sunday as a result of Hurricane Frances, which plowed ashore on the Florida Panhandle exactly one week ago.

Steve Lousberg, who manages Ace Hardware in the Panhandle town of Woodville, said he thinks people started preparing early for Ivan because of Charley and Frances.

"They've been seeing how devastated it is down south and the fact that these other two hurricanes have gone through and there are still reports that people haven't returned to power," he said. "They're definitely worried about it."

Ivan was causing anxiety for some who live along the Gulf Coast, from the Florida-Alabama line to areas of southwest Florida that were slammed by Charley.

In south Fort Myers, Julian Morano, 42, bought lumber to board up her windows. She said she prepared for Charley, which affected Fort Myers but hit north at Punta Gorda.

"I keep thinking about those people in Punta Gorda and what a surprise they got, and I just don't want that surprise," she said.