At least 90 percent of residents along the Florida Keys refused to evacuate as Hurricane Wilma swirled toward the state, despite the memory of devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina less than two months ago. "We're not New Orleans," said Elaine Chinnis, walking her dogs along Duval Street in Key West a few hours before Wilma was expected to pass by to the north.
The people here are not only hurricane weary, after dealing with four big storms this year alone. They are also hurricane savvy. It is not that they are being cavalier by refusing to leave, they are simply not afraid of a hurricane that is not expected to make a direct hit on Key West.
"It seems like we know more than the weather people," Chinnis said. "They seem to over-exaggerate everything."
Residents complain of a cry-wolf effect. People here have been ordered out before, and returned to find minimal damage, which is probably why so few left this time.
"I'm disappointed, but I understand it," Monroe County Sheriff Richard Roth said. "They're tired of leaving because of the limited damage they sustained during the last three hurricanes."
Officials hate that attitude. A storm surge of up to 17 feet (27 kilometers), enough to cause devastating flooding, was possible, according to forecasters. And hospitals were closed, meaning emergency situations could be even more dire.
Katrina did scare people in Key West, argues David Burnett, a guest house worker. That is why the tourists here were ordered out several days before Wilma and nearly all the bars and restaurants were shuttered. That might not have happened last year, the AP says.
"I cannot emphasize enough to the folks that live in the Florida Keys: A hurricane is coming," Gov. Jeb Bush said Sunday before it became too late to flee. "Perhaps people are saying, `I'm going to hunker down.' They shouldn't do that. They should evacuate."
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said: "We've been preaching this for decades, and you know, the government can only do so much. I don't know how we motivate people."
Officials say they are the ones who will be criticized if the storm comes ashore bigger than expected, or takes a last-minute turn and goes where it wasn't expected, as Hurricane Charley did last year in southwest Florida.
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