Florida keeps watch

Now the first hurricane of the year, Ernesto threatens to bring the recurring nightmare back to Florida.

The latest projected path carries Ernesto’s core right over Key West and the Lower Keys and perilously close to South Florida by Tuesday – with an ultimate landfall at or near St. Petersburg and Tampa by early Thursday.

Each forecast brought the projected track closer to South Florida. The entire region now sits squarely within the three-day warning area.

No evacuations were ordered, yet, but officials in the Keys said ‘some protective actions’ are likely to be announced soon.

‘We need to turn it up a notch here in Florida,’ said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County. ‘It looks like this is going to be a Florida storm.

‘Now would be a good time for all Floridians to ensure that their family plans and disaster supply kits are in place,’ he said. ‘All Floridians should continue to prepare and stay aware.’

Floridians are getting used to that. Eight hurricanes struck or brushed the state in the last two years.

Haiti and Cuba also were under the gun. Heavy rain and life-threatening floods were possible in Haiti today. The Cuban government issued a hurricane warning at 11 a.m. for the provinces of Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Holguin, Las Tunas and Camaguey.

In South Florida, forecasters predicted that tropical storm conditions – heavy rain and sustained winds well above 39 mph – for the Keys, Miami-Dade and Broward counties could begin arriving Tuesday morning and persist through Thursday night.

‘Residents across South Florida should continue to monitor the progress of this system and revise their hurricane preparedness plans,’ the National Weather Service office for South Florida said in a statement this morning.

State officials partially activated their Emergency Operations Center this morning and key planning and operational experts began gathering there. Conference calls with county emergency management offices were being planned.

People throughout state should ‘watch this storm closely,’ said Mike Stone, spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

The Florida National Guard issued a ‘warning order’ to commanders late Saturday and began final preparations to move troops if Gov. Jeb Bush activates the Guard.

‘In the event the governor gives an executive order, we’re ready to launch,’ said Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Ron Tittle.

The Guard has about 1,000 full-time military and state civilian employees, scores of whom have been in contact through the night and this morning, Tittle said.

Forecasters said Ernesto’s ultimate path and intensity would be determined by its interaction today with Haiti and the duration and precise nature of its passage over Cuba.

That means last-minute changes are possible to the forecast and everyone in Florida must pay close attention during the next few days.

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