Tropical Storm Fay threatened the entire peninsula of Florida early today as meteorologists worried that warm waters could quickly power it into a hurricane.
The most serious storm of this year's season is expected to cross Cuba on Monday and become a hurricane in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico. Computer models suggested it could make landfall Tuesday afternoon in west-central Florida, though forecasters cautioned against fixating on the eye's narrow path.
Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency in all of Florida on Saturday, activating the National Guard and authorizing transportation officials to waive tolls.
"Be prepared. Be ready," Crist said from the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center in Clearwater. "These things have a mind of their own. They can change. They can move."
So far, the islands of the Caribbean have kept the storm from organizing into a hurricane. Hispaniola, which comprises the Dominican Republic and Haiti, weakened the system as it crossed the island Friday and Saturday. But a plane inside the storm found signs Saturday that it was recovering from the mountainous island with dropping pressure and well-defined circulation.
Forecasters warned that it could rapidly gain power churning over the Caribbean and the Florida Straits. A trip across Cuba should weaken it, but no one knows exactly how much.
Models were consistent in showing a gradual turn north today but disagreed on the track after that. Some predicted it would veer east of Florida while others showed it heading west into the Gulf of Mexico. The consensus course plotted landfall just north of Port Charlotte.
"If you are within that cone, you need to seriously monitor what the storm is forecast to do," said Lt. Cmdr. Dave Roberts, a hurricane specialist for the Navy at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "Everyone needs to prepare for it as if you're going to be affected by it."
Forecasting models predicted a modest strengthening today. The five-day forecast, which is sometimes unreliable, showed it could have 80 mph winds before hitting Florida.
Late Saturday, a weather-watching plane observed that the storm's forward speed had slowed to about 14 miles per hour, meaning it will spend more time in the warm Caribbean waters before hitting Cuba.
In Charlotte County, emergency management director Wayne Sallade remembered the lesson of Charley, the most powerful hurricane to hit the United States since Andrew.
Though Charley in 2004 was a more compact storm that had already become a hurricane by the time it reached Cuba, it followed a course much like Fay's. It crossed the island where Fay is expected to hit and didn't lose much power. Then it suddenly grew into a Category 4 storm and turned east to Port Charlotte.
Sallade worried that people will face a similar surprise if they underestimate Fay's potential to energize over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.
"This thing right now is a very disorganized 40 mph tropical storm," he said. "That doesn't really get a lot of people's attention."
Emergency managers were taking early steps Saturday as they monitored the storm and prepared to activate their plans. Today, Pinellas County will discuss declaring an emergency and consider a proposed timetable that may call for evacuations on Monday, said spokesman Tom Iovino.
On Saturday night, Hillsborough County was still monitoring the storm. Larry Gispert, director of emergency management, said people should take advantage of having another day or so to prepare.
"Everybody should not be surprised," Gispert said. "They should be prepared."
St. Petersburg workers lowered water levels at retention ponds and lakes and cleared debris to aid runoff. School officials were also watching the storm, knowing it could affect the start of an academic year that begins Monday in Hillsborough and Tuesday in Pinellas.
The storm's first effects won't likely be felt in the Tampa Bay area until early Tuesday, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure.
Officials urged residents to check their hurricane kits and stock up on supplies like water and batteries.
"What we learned in '04 is that hurricanes are unpredictable," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. "The government's got a role and we're going to do our job but the residents and individuals have a role as well."
In Punta Gorda, hard hit by Charley in 2004, people seemed to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. Home Depot was mostly empty on Saturday evening and only a few residents were stocking up at grocery stores.
Roger Van Aman bought four bottles of wine and more than a dozen gallons of water at a Publix on U.S. 41. "My wife said we could get the water tomorrow," he said. "I told her we'll be lucky if we could get anything tonight."
Joe Damico, 44, bought five gallons of water and a 12-pack of Mountain Dew. He recently moved to the Gulf Coast from Michigan. Fay could be his first sighting of a hurricane. He planned to strap down a boat at home and wait out the storm.
"How bad can it be?" he said.
Times staff writer Jonathan Abel contributed to this report.