Florida all at sea as the full force of Hurricane Georges comes ashore

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HURRICANE GEORGES reached the south-west of the United States yesterday, wreaking havoc in Florida, after devastating tracts of the Caribbean and northern Cuba.

It hit the Florida Keys, the low-lying island chain south-west of the mainland, causing widespread power cuts and tree damage. Sections of the Overseas Highway, which links the 150-mile island chain to the mainland of southern Florida, were under water, as were lower-lying areas of several islands.

Key West, the picturesque resort town and writers' retreat celebrated by Ernest Hemingway, was without power or piped water; concrete telegraph poles had been felled, and trees uprooted. Several of the town's characteristic 19th- century houses were badly damaged, mostly by trees.

Some of the smaller Keys suffered worse, with extensive damage on Big Pine Key in the Middle Keys, where roofs were blown off, including the roof of the only radio station on the islands still operating. Several marinas were said to have suffered severely and some boats were torn from their moorings and swept out to sea.

The chief threat to the rest of southern Florida, including Miami, however, was largely averted, as the hurricane changed course slightly westward.

The altered trajectory set it on course to affect the Gulf coast, and evacuations began from some of the wealthiest settlements in the southern US, including the towns of Naples and Sarasota.

The worst scenario envisaged by meteorologists and relief workers was that the storm would gather force over the Gulf and reach land again in the heavily settled Florida Panhandle, near the state capital, Tallahassee. This would necessitate relief operations: to the east, on Puerto Rico, which was one of the earliest islands struck by Georges, in the Keys, and in the north-west of the state.

Miami and southern Florida, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Andrew six years ago, experienced a night of fierce squalls, with 75mph winds and tempestuous seas from the fringe of the hurricane. People awoke to a yellow-grey dawn with the rain sheeting down and water coursing down city streets like rivers.

In Fort Lauderdale, to the north, a section of the sea wall collapsed, closing the main coast road and opening the risk of flooding. Although almost 100,000 people were left without power, the damage was mostly limited to trees and flimsy structures like sheds.

Evacuees in the Miami area were allowed back to their homes late last night, but the causeways to the Keys remained closed, while road damage was assessed.

Extensive flooding was believed to have cut US Route 1 in several places. One reporter said the Overseas Highway, as the road is known, had become the "Underseas highway". The islands are only seven feet above sea level.

For the six hours that the hurricane was at its height, police suspended road patrols.

The chief worry in the Keys was for the estimated 35,000 residents who had ignored the mandatory evacuation order, despite repeated warnings. Police blocked plans by a number of bars in Key West to host hurricane parties, citing the emergency curfew, which also banned sales of alcohol. The ban did not prevent a clutch of private beach gatherings, however, until the weather deteriorated too far, nor did it prevent a festive emergence of dog-walkers and shoppers during a half-hour calm in the centre of the storm.

While most of those who stayed in the Keys appeared philosophical and well- prepared for the onslaught, the county authorities and police expressed concern about what they saw as a degree of complacency among Keys-dwellers. They noted that evacuation orders had been well observed in the regions of southern Florida devastated by Hurricane Andrew six years ago, which narrowly missed the Keys. Even in Miami Beach, where evacuation was voluntary, a majority appeared to have left before the storm hit.

They may have been encouraged by the first squall, which suddenly swept southern Miami with scant warning on Thursday evening, turning a clear blue dusk in a matter of minutes to a lowering mass of yellow-grey menace that yielded a furious downpour.

So-called "shelters of last resort" were established in Miami and the Keys, public halls with weather protection, but no staff or supplies, for those who had left it too late to seek shelter elsewhere. Television and radio stations linked their broadcasts, so that those deprived of power could stay in touch.

Keys Radio 1 remained on air throughout the storm, collecting information from people with telephones and battery- operated radios. One caller reported a 40ft sailing boat in his garden; another, a school of dolphins caught in the waterway by his house.