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Fay's next stop: Florida

Tropical Storm Fay could bring rain and gusty winds tonight, but emergency managers held off until today to make key decisions about this unpredictable storm.

Late Sunday, forecasters shifted the storm's track to hug southwest Florida before making landfall near Tampa Bay on Tuesday. The west coast from the Keys to Tarpon Springs is under a hurricane watch today.

Fay had not strengthened significantly late Sunday as it brushed the southern coast of Cuba and prepared to turn north. But forecasters expected better organization after the storm reaches the Straits of Florida today. The storm, which had about 50 mph winds that extended up to 100 miles from the center, could be approaching hurricane strength when it hits the Keys, probably tonight.

Computer models disagreed on the storm's course and intensity after Cuba, though the official forecast still called for Fay to become a Category 1 hurricane as it nears the Florida peninsula.

Emergency managers in counties throughout the bay area will meet today to discuss evacuations, school closings and shelter openings.

• Pinellas County will consider a first-level evacuation of low-lying areas and mobile homes after the 11 a.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center today. Other counties have less specific plans.

• Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties will open schools as planned today. Pinellas County is still starting its year on Tuesday, though officials will consider cancellations today.

• State officials warned that flooding and tornadoes could be the worst threats from this storm. Locally, meteorologists said the counterclockwise winds of even a weak storm could push water into Tampa Bay, especially if the storm hits just north of Pinellas County.

• Fay's torrential rains and flooding killed one person in Haiti and four in the Dominican Republic. The western Florida Keys are bracing for a tropical storm today, evacuating some residents, closing schools and opening shelters in preparation for landfall.

In Tallahassee, Gov. Charlie Crist asked Floridians to get ready and watch the cone of the forecast rather than the skinny line of the eye's potential course. He assured citizens that the government is ready to handle a disaster. "Florida is prepared, and we are ready and we will be vigilant," said Crist, who ordered a state of emergency on Saturday.

Forecasters called this an unpredictable storm that hasn't had a chance to develop but could intensify as it feeds on the warmer waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The National Hurricane Center noted that the entire west coast of Florida has an equal chance of feeling hurricane conditions early this week.

"I could see anything from a strong hurricane in the gulf to a disorganized storm over the peninsula that brings rain," said Mike Clay, chief meteorologist for Bay News 9. "Nothing has been taken off the table, really."

Computer models showed it could make landfall in southwest Florida or continue into the gulf toward the Florida Panhandle.

How Fay emerges from Cuba today will be crucial to its track and intensity as it nears Florida. Richard Pasch, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said the storm will likely bypass eastern Cuba's mountains. In 2004 Hurricane Charley crossed the island without slowing down.

"We don't think we're going to see a major disruption due to land," Pasch said.

As the storm's track shifted slightly on Sunday, Clay warned that even a tropical storm that hits north of the area could push enough water into Tampa Bay to cause serious flooding. From that direction, the southwestern winds of Fay could drive water right into the mouth of the bay.

Tropical storms in the gulf also bring a greater danger of tornadoes, when the prevailing winds collide with the winds of the storm, Clay said.

The water temperatures off the west coast of Florida are in the low 80s, cooled slightly by recent rains. But that's still warm enough to strengthen a hurricane.

Clay said a gulf hurricane threatening Tampa Bay this early in the year is unusual. A high-pressure system often sits over Florida in August and pushes hurricanes toward the western gulf. But it's a weakening in the west side of that system that forecasters believe will turn the storm north, right up the Florida coast.

Counties in the Tampa Bay area are closely watching the storm and planning meetings for today to make decisions on emergency response.

Late Sunday, none of the bay area counties had decided to close schools, order evacuations or open shelters. But they asked residents to use the waiting period to get ready.

Pinellas County planned to open the Emergency Operations Center at 6 a.m. today. Emergency management director Sally Bishop urged residents to gather supplies, find their evacuation zone, secure their homes and make plans for transportation and pets.

"People need to be prepared to move," Bishop said at Sunday evening. "Do what you need to do now, and if the thing shifts again, then you're all prepared for the rest of hurricane season."

Fay proved its power after bisecting the Dominican Republic and Haiti and brushing southeastern Cuba this weekend. Besides killing five people on the island of Hispaniola, Fay damaged crucial Haitian farmland as the country battles a food crisis that has sparked deadly riots. It was unclear how many acres were affected.

In Winter Park, John McCain was briefed Sunday on Tropical Storm Fay, which scuttled a political fundraiser.

Times staff writers Curtis Krueger, Joel Anderson, Steve Bousquet and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Fay's next stop: Florida 08/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 4:41pm]

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