Tourists leave Florida Keys town as Tropical Storm Rita approaches

Hotel workers secured pool chairs and umbrellas, tourists boarded buses out of town and lines of vehicles snaked out of the lower Florida Keys as Tropical Storm Rita churned toward the exposed island chain.

Rita, which strengthened Sunday into a tropical storm, had sustained winds of 60 mph (97 kph)and was forecast to be in the Straits of Florida between the Keys and northern Cuba on Monday, possibly as a Category 1 hurricane with winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph), forecasters said.

Officials extended mandatory evacuation orders Monday for visitors throughout the Keys, including the Dry Tortugas, and residents in mobile homes and areas at risk for storm-surge flooding, as well as those living aboard their boats, The AP reports.

The stream of vehicles leaving the Keys on Sunday included RVs, cars towing boats and thousands of motorcycle riders who left an annual gathering a day early. U.S. 1, the lone highway in the Keys, was packed.

Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for Florida, which gives the state authority to oversee evacuations and activate the National Guard, among other powers.

Despite the evacuation order, however, some hotels and restaurants in Key West remained open, and few businesses were boarded up Sunday night.

In the Bahamas, which could be struck by Rita first, few on Mayaguana Island bothered to board their windows or stock up on emergency supplies as they normally would for a hurricane, said Earnel Brown, manager of the Baycaner Beach Resort.

"I don't expect that much trouble," Brown said. "I don't think we're going to have that much damage from it."

At 0900 GMT, Rita was centered about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Nassau, Bahamas, and about 490 miles (790 kilometers) east-southeast of Key West. It was moving to the west-northwest near 9 mph (14.5 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center.

Forecasters warned those across the U.S. southern coast that long-term predictions are subject to large errors. That means that areas ravaged by Katrina should be watching the storm.

Rita is the 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. That makes this season the fourth busiest since record keeping began in 1851 _ 21 tropical storms formed in 1933, 19 developed in 1995 and 1887 and 18 formed in 1969, according to the hurricane center.

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