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Published Oct. 22, 2008

Florida is helping with the response to Hurricane Gustav, but the state is distracted by a possible strike from Tropical Storm Hanna later in the week.

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will send four seven-person search-and-rescue teams and 22 small boats to Louisiana to help with recovery operations, Gov. Charlie Crist said Sunday.

Louisiana would like more help than that, but Florida must keep a watchful eye on Hanna.

"We're being very surgical in our response to Louisiana," said Col. Julie Jones of the conservation commission. "We have to maintain our ability to respond to the coastal areas of Florida. We're obviously not going to put our people in harm's way, but we'll get there as soon as we can."

Under the direction of Maj. Brett Norton, the search-and-rescue teams will mobilize in Pensacola today and be prepared to head to the areas with the worst damage at first light Tuesday.

The Florida National Guard also dispatched a C-23 Sherpa fixed-wing plane to help with Gulf Coast medical evacuations.

All along Interstate 10 in North Florida, hotel parking lots were full of cars with Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama license plates, and the state Transportation Department reported that traffic was twice as heavy as the same time one year ago. The state also opened three hurricane shelters, in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Walton counties, to deal with Gustav evacuees.

"Floridians and visitors to our Atlantic and gulf beaches are urged to stay out of the surf during the next few days," Crist said. "Swells from Gustav are creating high surf along the gulf (and) a high risk of rip currents."

State meteorologist Ben Nelson said flood watches remained in effect in Collier, Glades, Hendry and mainland Monroe counties. He said the swollen St. Johns River in northeast Florida had not yet crested.

Nelson said that Tropical Storm Hanna was disorganized and on a highly uncertain track, but that Floridians should watch it closely.

"The whole peninsula falls within that cone of uncertainty, as we call it," Nelson said.

Crist said "common sense" would dictate how to balance the demands for help from Louisiana and Mississippi with the need to be fully prepared for a direct hit from Hanna later in the week.

"There are no rules to these things, just good predictions," Crist said. "We know that Hanna's out there. We don't know where she's going to go, and we don't know how strong she's going to be."

With serious weather problems threatening Florida, Crist said he did not plan to go to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., this week. "I'm here and my plan is to stay here, and odds are that I will not be going."

Times staff writer Will Van Zant contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.