Two million are evacuated as Hurricane Charley hits Florida

Click to follow

After roaring across Cuba, Hurricane Charley strengthened to a dangerous Category 4 storm with winds of 145 mph and bore down on Florida's west coast yesterday.

After roaring across Cuba, Hurricane Charley strengthened to a dangerous Category 4 storm with winds of 145 mph and bore down on Florida's west coast yesterday.

Almost two million people had been ordered to evacuate coastal regions in the Tampa area, clogging roads and filling temporary shelters inland. Orlando, a favourite August holiday destination for British tourists was also at risk, officials said. About 6.5 million of Florida's 17 million residents found themselves in Charley's path.

Earlier, as it blew through the Caribbean, Charley was blamed for at least four deaths, three in Cuba and one in Jamaica. It was estimated the storm may cost insurers more than $15bn (£8bn). Declaring a state of emergency for the entire state ahead of landfall by the storm, Governor Jeb Bush confirmed that Charley "does have the potential of devastating impact. This is a scary, scary thing." The last time such a storm threatened the Tampa area was in 1906.

Last night, the storm was upgraded from an expected category 3 to category 4. Hurricanes are described in five categories according to a US Navy scale. If predictions were correct, Charley would be the strongest hurricane to hit Florida since the category 5 Andrew hit south of Miami in 1992, causing $24bn damage. Most of the danger last night appeared concentrated on Hillsborough County, which contains Tampa, and Pinellas County, comprising the neighbouring cities of St Petersburg and Clearwater.

Aside from flooding and sustained high winds, tornadoes were also expected. Under the worst scenarios, the storm was expected to leave large areas of downtown Tampa underwater, with depths of 4ft in some neighbourhoods.

Also under an evacuation order last night was MacDill Air Force Base, close to Tampa, which includes the operations nerve centre for US military operations in Iraq. "MacDill will probably be mostly underwater and parts of downtown Tampa could be underwater," Ben Nelson, the state meteorologist, had said earlier.

Yesterday morning, Amtrak cancelled all trains between New York and Miami. Disney World theme park in Orlando was preparing to close, disrupting the plans of thousands of tourists. Tampa airport was set to close and airlines were cancelling flights to many Florida cities, including Orlando.

Parts of north-west Florida were lashed on Thursday night by tropical storm Bonnie. Its sustained winds were only 50mph and it moved inland swiftly, causing little damage. But it is, the first time in almost 100 years that Florida has been hit by two such storms at once.

Charley offered a preview of its potential power in Key West yesterday, where tourists and mobile-home owners had also been ordered to evacuate. As it passed to the west of the island chain in the morning it buffeted Key West with winds of about 50mph. The storm, however, mostly spared the Florida Keys.

It killed one person in Jamaica during the day on Thursday and passed over western Cuba in the night, tearing off roofs, flooding homes and throwing down power lines. President Fidel Castro, who turned 78 yesterday, expressed his relief on state television that Havana had been largely spared: "This was like a birthday present from nature, a special present, because a hurricane can cause most damage in a capital city, to housing, industry and electricity lines."

Most people in the Tampa area appear to have heeded the evacuation order, issued on Thursday. Officials said that once the storm hit, causeways to beach residential areas would be cut off from rescue workers.

Gary Vickers, the emergency management chief for Pinellas County, said there would be "a period of time where if you stay behind and you change your mind and you want to be rescued, no one can help you". He added: "We aren't going to go out on a suicide mission."

The White House announced last night that President Bush had declared some parts of Florida a natural disaster area.