Tourists evacuate as new tropical storm nears Florida

Once again, hurricane alerts blanketed South Florida this morning as Tropical Storm Rita the 17th named storm of this extraordinary season menaced the region.

Forecasters said Rita could grow into a hurricane by tonight. The projected path carried its core just south of the region, very close to the Keys and as a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds. Meteorologists warned that a slight deviation could bring the core through the Keys and much closer to Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

"Because of its close proximity to South Florida, and with expected impact approximately 24 hours away, it is imperative that everyone pay close attention to this storm and carefully monitor advisories and emergency messages," Castillo said Sunday night.

Some residents in Coral Gables and elsewhere are still cleaning up the mess left by Hurricane Katrina fewer than four weeks ago.

"Mother nature still has us in its sights," said Jim Lushine, the National Weather Service's severe weather expert for South Florida. "I hope it just wings us rather than hitting us in the gut."

A hurricane watch covered all of Broward and Miami-Dade, meaning that winds of at least 74 mph are possible within 36 hours. A hurricane warning was issued for the Keys, meaning that those conditions are expected within 24 hours. Residents of the Bahamas and central and western Cuba also were placed on alert, reports Miami Herald.

According to SFGate hundreds of motorcyclists were in the Keys for an annual event, but most were leaving Sunday, senior emergency management director Billy Wagner said.

County officials also urged residents of mobile homes to prepare for possible evacuation.

Michael Knowles, general manager of the Hampton Inn Resort in Key West, told his guests to leave Sunday but said he wasn't too worried about the latest weather system because it wasn't as strong as Katrina.

"These are like rehearsal drills for us," Knowles said. "I'm originally from the Bahamas so this is like my 25th hurricane."

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