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Sunday September 17 3:49 PM ET

Thousands Flee As Hurricane Nears Florida


By Angus MacSwan

MIAMI (Reuters) - About 280,000 people were ordered to flee their homes in rural communities along north Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday as Hurricane Gordon drove toward land from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to bring floods to low areas.

Forecasters expected the hurricane to hit land near Cedar Key early Sunday evening. Officials warned that flooding from the storm surge and rain was a big threat, and Gordon could also spawn tornadoes. But other damage could be minimal, they said.

Winds, rain and battering waves lashed the Gulf Coast on Sunday. People in urban areas stocked up on supplies and others headed for hurricane shelters.

National Guard troops and emergency teams were primed for action. At Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast, the Kennedy Space Center also battened down in case the storm turned in that direction.

``This storm is going to impact the entire state,'' Gov. Jeb Bush said at the emergency command center in the state capital of Tallahassee.

``The tornadoes, the floods and the rains are clearly going to be just as dramatic in central as south Florida. People should take this seriously in every part of the state, not just in the part where the eye of the hurricane is,'' Bush told reporters.

Mood Is Calm, Professional

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted Gordon would hit land between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. EDT (2200 to 2400 GMT) near Cedar Key, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Tampa.

The island is a wildlife refuge near the mouth of the Suwannee River, tucked into the coastline's so-called ``Big Bend.'' The mainland in that area, about 60 miles (100 km) southeast of Gainesville, is largely mangrove swamps and small villages.

About 280,000 people had been given mandatory evacuation orders from Citrus and Taylor counties -- in the bull's eye of the storm's flight -- as well as Hernando and Franklin, said Bruce Congleton, a spokesman at the State Emergency Operations Center.

``A little more than half of them are from mobile homes -- we're real concerned about those people,'' he said. ``I would say the mood is very calm, very professional,'' he added.

The bridge to Cedar Key, where a few hundred people live, was to close in the afternoon. At 2 p.m. EDT Gordon was plowing northeast at 14 mph, packing winds of 75 mph. Its center was about 90 miles (144 km) south-southeast of Cedar Key at latitude 28.1 north and longitude 83.7.

The NHC said it should weaken as it headed over land.

Hurricane force winds extended 60 miles (100 km) from the center and tropical storm force winds about 175 miles (280 km).

Heavy Storm Surge, Rains Expected

A storm surge of 7 to 10 feet (two to three meters) can be expected as well as 7 to 10 inches (17 to 25 cm) of rain in central and north Florida, forecasters said.

Officials and forecasters said storm surge, heavy rains and potential flooding could hit a wide area.

Reuters Photo``Dangerous conditions extend well to the east and north of the center,'' a National Hurricane Center advisory said.

In fact, a tornado ripped through Broward County, in south Florida, on Sunday morning, causing some damage, the NHC reported. More could be expected.

Voluntary evacuations were underway in Pinellas, Sarasota, Hillsborough, Manatee and Dixie counties. Thirty emergency shelters were open and more than 100 people had sought refuge in them by Sunday morning.

But the hurricane should be far from catastrophic, said NHC forecaster Christopher Burr.

``We've probably dodged another one. Other than flooding, I don't expect much damage in terms of downed trees and power lines,'Burr said.

Gordon could be downgraded to a tropical storm by Sunday night, he said. It looked like it would cross Florida and Georgia and emerge on the South Carolina coast on Monday morning, from where it would head out into the Atlantic.

Other Storm Warnings Posted

On the Gulf Coast, a hurricane warning was in effect from Anna Maria Island, near St. Petersburg, to the Ochlockonee River in the Florida Panhandle.

On the Atlantic coast, storm alerts were in effect from Titusville, Florida, through Georgia to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral was on hurricane alert although Gordon looked set to pass north of the facility.

NASA decided to leave space shuttle Discovery on the launch pad rather than roll it back to a hangar, a move that would almost certainly delay Discovery's Oct. 5 launch.

Shuttle facilities were boarded, shuttered and sandbagged in case the hurricane should change its direction.

The threat to the offshore oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico receded, however, with companies reporting little or no effect on production.

Companies evacuated hundreds of workers from drilling rigs and offshore production platforms as a precaution on Friday and Saturday but started moving them back offshore again on Sunday.

Rains from Gordon already have caused death and mayhem in Guatemala, where 19 people were killed and more than 50 hurt in recent days. Hundreds of people in the Central American country fled their homes for fear of flooding and landslides.

Gordon is the seventh named storm of the Atlantic storm season. In 1994, Tropical Storm Gordon triggered landslides that killed about 400 people in Haiti as it steamed through the Caribbean, then killed four in Florida and caused widespread flooding.

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), September 17, 2000


Thanks for the update, hmm. Prayers for safety go out to all the evacuees.

-- (, September 17, 2000.

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