Floridians relieved as Ernesto loses punch before striking Sunshine

Published: Aug. 29, 2006 at 3:38 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 30, 2006 at 1:52 AM CDT
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MIAMI (AP) - Tropical Storm Ernesto sloshed rather than slammed
ashore - surprising forecasters by failing to strengthen Tuesday as
it approached Florida and providing relief to hurricane-weary
Briefly a hurricane Sunday, Ernesto lost much of its punch
crossing mountainous eastern Cuba. The storm crossed the Florida
Straits with top sustained winds of 45 mph and was expected to move
through Florida overnight as a weak tropical storm.
"Fortunately it didn't get too big," said David Rudduck of the
American Red Cross. "It was the little train that couldn't."
That was good news for Florida, the victim of seven hurricanes
since 2004.
"Frankly, I am surprised it has not strengthened," said Max
Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center. "But for all
those thousands and thousands of people with blue-tarped roofs,
that's good news. ... As a homeowner, I'm very happy. As a
forecaster, I'm not very happy."
As the threat of damaging winds abated, rain became the biggest
concern, and police distributed thousands of sandbags in the
low-lying Miami suburb of Sweetwater. Five to 10 inches of rain was
possible, forecasters said.
Accidents on rain-slickened expressways killed at least two
people. A Miami woman died after the car in which she was riding
hydroplaned and struck a palm tree, and a motorcyclist was killed
near Boca Raton after skidding and being struck by two other
Still, officials had feared much worse weather. In the Keys,
Monroe County emergency management director Irene Toner smiled as
she watched steady rain fall.
"This is great," she said. "Compared to what it could have
been, we are fortunate."
On Miami Beach, usually vibrant Lincoln Road was quiet, and many
businesses closed early. Among those finding food at an Italian
restaurant was actor Mickey Rourke with his dog Loki, wearing a
pink argyle sweater.
"What storm?" Rourke said. "This is nothing."
The state had been ready to respond with 500 National Guard
members and another 500 state law enforcement officers.
"This does not look like a catastrophic event, but we always
want to be ready," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff
said in Tallahassee. He attended Katrina anniversary events earlier
in the day in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Ernesto was forecast to move up the middle of the state and exit
on the northeast coast by early Thursday, moving into the Atlantic
and potentially gaining hurricane strength before hitting Georgia
or the Carolinas.
NASA scrubbed Tuesday's launch of Atlantis. The space agency
began moving the shuttle back to its hangar to protect it from the
storm, then reversed course later in the day when forecasters
predicted that winds would not be as severe as initially feared.
"It is always difficult to forecast intensity," Mayfield said.
"We've been very honest with people about that."
Tropical storm watches or warnings remained in effect for much
of coastal Florida. A hurricane watch was posted for the coasts of
Georgia and the Carolinas.

At 8 p.m. EDT, Ernesto was centered 70 miles south of Miami and
was moving northwest near 13 mph.
Across populous south Florida, residents scurried to make
last-minute preparations before hunkering down. Lines formed early
in the morning at groceries, gas stations, pharmacies and home
supply stores, and many schools were closed through Wednesday.
The storm was especially worrisome for thousands of residents
still awaiting repairs to damage from hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.
More than a thousand people sought refuge at shelters in Broward
and Miami-Dade counties. Others embraced the weather as an
opportunity. A squall preceding the storm brought out kite-surfers
on Miami Beach until the wind became too strong.
In the laid-back Florida Keys, many residents took the storm in
stride. At the Hurricane Grille in Marathon, wall-mounted
televisions showed Ernesto heading for the Keys as Dean Carrigan
enjoyed beer and a game of darts.
"It's definitely the Keys lifestyle that we're out here
drinking and having a good time," he said.
Ernesto killed at least two people in Haiti, including a woman
washed out to sea Sunday from a southern island, the country's
civil protection agency said.
There were no reports of damage or deaths in Cuba. In an unusual
public acknowledgment of the cooperation that has long existed
between U.S. and Cuban weather services, the hurricane center
thanked Cuba's government for permitting reconnaissance aircraft
"to fly right up to their coastline to gather this critical
weather data."
Meanwhile, off Mexico's west coast, Hurricane John grew into a
powerful Category 3 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph.
The storm threatened to cause flooding and ruin vacations in some
Pacific resorts, but it was not expected to directly hit land.
John became the sixth Pacific hurricane of the season earlier in
the day.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)