Hurricane Andrew to batter Florida

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IT IS the big one that the people of Florida have been warned about for years. But as with the much-predicted Californian killer earthquake it never seemed it would really happen. Now this is for real.

Some time this morning Hurricane Andrew, a storm on a scale not seen in Florida for more than 50 years, and perhaps destined to be the worst hurricane ever to strike a US city, should reach the state with more than 150mph winds, torrential rain and tidal surges in excess of 16 feet (5m).

Andrew ripped into the Bahamas yesterday afternoon, with unconfirmed reports of four deaths in the isolated Out Islands. It is a Category 5 storm, the maximum rating for hurricanes, and is expected to make Hurricane Hugo - whose 130mph winds lashed the South Carolina coast in 1989 killing 26 people - look timid.

Already an estimated one million people have been evacuated from coastal areas in south-eastern Florida or ordered to move inland out of harm's way. The flow of traffic was slow but steady as residents from the scenic coast headed for designated shelters or the homes of friends and relatives on safer ground.

Police also had to turn back honeymooning couples heading south in search of a romantic storm background, and surfers hoping to ride the ultimate Big One. Reports that airports would close in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach caused gridlocks on approach roads. Residents of Palm Beach were seen on television trying to get their yachts safely stored away before they fled. Emergency workers said their biggest problem was with people in mobile homes who refused to abandon their property. 'We've heard this all before and nothing ever seems to amount to these hurricanes. I'm staying right here,' one caravan-owner near Fort Lauderdale said.

Emergency services had hoped for a change in the hurricane's course. Such wishful thinking seemed to disappear yesterday. 'I wish we weren't facing what's out there but the fact is a major hurricane is going to hit south Florida,' said Bob Sheets, director of the US National Hurricane Center.

Frantic activity to prepare for the worst started on Saturday night and was going full steam by yesterday morning. People stocked up at supermarkets, petrol stations and hardware stores on water, tinned food, batteries and plywood to batten down the hatches for the storm.

All local television channels have been given over to meteorologists with colourful and constantly updated satellite pictures of the storm.

The broadcasters said that the smaller the eye, or centre of the storm, the more intense the winds would be and the greater the destruction. From the looks of the satellite pictures it is truly a tiny evil eye on its way.

The Foreign Office warned Britons to avoid southern Florida and the Bahamas for the next 48 hours. It plans to set up an emergency telephone hotline today for people concerned about relatives and friends. The destroyer HMS Cardiff and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Orange Leaf, on duty in the Caribbean, have been diverted to the outer Bahamian islands to offer help and should arrive today.