Hurricane Ivan Batters Caribbean, Threatens Florida

Forecasters have predicted Ivan could strike Florida’s northern gulf coast late Wednesday or early Thursday, prompting residents to begin preparing for evacuation. The preparations came as formerly evacuated residents of the Florida Keys returned to their homes after officials said they were no longer threatened by the destructive storm.

On Monday, Monroe County officials lifted mandatory evacuation orders initiated Thursday for tourists and the roughly 79,000 residents in the Florida Keys, a 120-mile island chain. Officials estimate that by Thursday the island chain could lose $16 million to $20 million in tourism-related sales because of Ivan. They said the evacuation from Hurricane Charley last month cost the Keys $35 million in tourism sales.

National Hurricane Center meteorologist Michael Formosa said the cooler water of the northern Gulf of Mexico and wind shear could weaken Ivan before it hits the coast. He estimated the storm could drop from a Category 5 to a Category 3 storm, with sustained wind of 111 mph to 130 mph.

Emergency officials in several Florida panhandle counties will decide later Monday whether to order evacuations from rural fishing villages and beach communities as Ivan threatened to become the third hurricane to hit the state this summer. Residents of the panhandle and Big Bend areas boarded windows and stocked food in preparation.

Farther west along the Gulf Coast, an emergency declaration already was in effect as a precaution for Mississippi’s Jackson County. The state’s Emergency Management Agency considered sending personnel to staging areas that could be in the storm’s path.

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

About 283,000 homes and businesses still had no electricity Monday as a result of Hurricane Frances, which plowed ashore on the Florida panhandle on Sept. 5.

Meanwhile, Mexican authorities have ordered residents in low-lying areas of the Yucatan Peninsula to evacuate, and have issued a hurricane warning for the tourist destination of Cancun. Forecasters have predicted the storm could move near the tip of the peninsula by Tuesday morning.

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