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Fay is not making forecasters' jobs easy

Tropical Storm Fay finally set a course to hit southwest Florida this morning, but the storm's erratic behavior left Tampa Bay officials unsure how to respond.

Pinellas County officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for the most flood-prone areas beginning at 6 a.m. today but left open the possibility of changing their minds.

Charlotte County recommended the entire county evacuate but did not order anyone to do so. It was after 5 p.m. when Pasco County school officials announced they would cancel today's classes. About 6 p.m. Hillsborough officials announced a mandatory evacuation for mobile home residents and a voluntary evacuation of residents in flood-prone areas.

Emergency planners, faced with their first serious hurricane threat in nearly three years, faced a classic dilemma — whether to order evacuations that would disrupt lives or leave people alone and hope the storm does too.

Most chose some form of the first option, because of the possibility that Fay might change directions and head to the Tampa Bay area, where Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were under a tropical storm warning late Monday.

"We still have a lot of time for the storm to gain (strength) over the water," Pinellas Emergency Management director Sally Bishop said. "One little jog to one side or another could move it further over to Pinellas, and we may have even more severe effects."

But she was hoping that wouldn't happen. "We're hoping for something wonderful, which would be a move a lot farther to the east. … (We) may be able to modify from a mandatory to a recommended (evacuation), but that is a wait-and-see situation." After a long day of waiting and seeing Monday, forecasters were predicting the storm would skirt the Tampa Bay area and that it might not be as severe as once thought. Although National Hurricane Center experts previously believed Fay would become a Category 1 hurricane, they slightly revised their thoughts Monday, predicting it would be "at or near hurricane strength" when hitting Southwest Florida."

Because of the angle Fay travelled, north up the coastline from the Florida Keys, predicting its path proved difficult. At various times experts said the storm would pass to the east of Tampa Bay, then to the west, and then east again, as different computer models offered opposing predictions.

But by Monday afternoon, the computers and human forecasters agreed Fay is most likely to strike southwest Florida this morning, somewhere in the neighborhood of Fort Myers or Naples. Experts were quick to stress a last-minute change of direction — including toward Tampa Bay — was possible.

A track that takes the storm south is good for the Tampa Bay area because winds and storm surge will be less severe than if the storm hit just north of the area. This particular storm is carrying more rough weather on its east side than on its west side, forecasters said, which means Tampa Bay would be on the less stormy side of Fay.

But we'll still be affected. "We are looking for some probably heavy bands of rain," and high winds in the Tampa Bay area, said National Weather Service meteorologist Richard Rude. The storm also carries the threat of tornadoes.

Perhaps because of the changing forecasts over the past couple of days, or maybe because Floridians are out of practice, preparations by those who live up and down Florida's west coast seemed erratic.

At one point on Monday, a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Pasco County's Trinity community ran out of bottled water and D batteries, because of a big turnout on Sunday. "It was pretty much a storm of people," said assistant manager Jessica Johns.

But at a Publix in Wesley Chapel, most grocery carts were full of the usual stuff: frozen pizzas, chips, ice cream and none of the prestorm pandemonium that has infected shoppers in the past.

Florida Director of Emergency Management Craig Fugate saw footage of surfers on the stormy waves, and feared people may not be taking the storm seriously.

"A loss of life is never minimal, we just want people to play it smart and be cautious. Don't underestimate the danger," Fugate said. "This is not the storm that should be deadly if we play it safe."

A 54-year-old Highlands County man died after testing generators inside his garage. Experts warn against running generators inside because of possible carbon monoxide poisoning.

But Marco Island resident Jess Tateo said, "Nobody's feeling too anxious, I don't think," after he flew across the water at about 40-mph on his sail board. "It was nice to go through Wilma. Now I know my house could make it through that. That's why I'm not too concerned with a Category 1."

Nancy Hickson, 66, and her husband Ron, 60, weren't taking any chances with her 92-year-old mother as they drove up to an emergency shelter in Port Charlotte in a minivan loaded with extra clothes and water.

"Charley took our carport," she said, referring to the 2004 hurricane. "It took part of the house, part of the roof. It touched every room except for the back bedroom. We had all the doors shut, and we just huddled. I'm a coward, and my mom is 92. It was an exciting experience, but an experience I don't want to go through again."

Hopefully, she won't have to. But for Tampa Bay residents who may feel relieved this morning, the National Hurricane Center has some more news:

There's another low-pressure system brewing in the Atlantic Ocean, and three and a half months left in hurricane season.

Times staff writers Doug Clifford, Lisa Buie and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report.

Fay is not making forecasters' jobs easy 08/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 11:53am]

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