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Party time as Erin hits Florida coast

Hurricane Erin, the first of the 1995 season, rumbled towards the prosperous beaches of central Florida early today after hitting the Bahamas and spinning northwards away from Miami and the Florida Keys.

The eye of the hurricane passed along Grand Bahama island, missing Nassau but stranding thousands of British and other tourists as flights were cancelled.

As the hurricane's eye appeared to target an area between Vero Beach and Palm Beach on the Florida coast, wealthy residents who had expected Erin to hit further south frantically began boarding up their homes or moving inland.

Earlier, the hurricane, the first to hit eastern Florida since Hurricane Andrew killed 35 people and left 250,000 homeless three years ago this month, had appeared headed for Miami and the Keys, but it then changed tack.

The first strong winds whipped the Boca Raton area around 4pm yesterday afternoon but Erin was expected to hit with full force in the early hours of today, and authorities warned it could be followed by tornados. Local officials ordered coastal areas evacuated from Miami Beach in the south to Smyrna beach in the north, but a majority of residents opted to batten down the hatches and stay home.

Although some people continued to venture out, including surfers, and wave-jumping jet skiers revelling in the conditions, there was an eerie atmosphere as birds, among them the renowned flamingos, disappeared inland, sensing the incoming storm.

"We're having a hurricane party," said Rob McFate, a 29-year-old New Yorker who heeded an official call to evacuate low-lying Key West and moved to the Florida mainland at Pembroke Pines. "We got vodka, white wine, red wine, chasers, extra CDs."

Many tourists ordered out of the Keys on Monday, however, may face further bad luck today and possibly tomorrow as Erin's northerly twist threatened to close Disneyworld at Orlando.

Despite the lingering trauma from Andrew, there was no sign of panic as Erin headed for Florida at speeds of 85 miles per hour and upwards. That made it only a Category One hurricane on a scale of five - Andrew was graded four - but meteorologists said it might become a Category Two with winds of up to 130 mph.

Most worrying was the amount of rain the first hurricane of the 1995 season was carrying as it spun west-north-west towards the coast. Andrew dumped four inches of rain in a few hours. Erin looked likely to unload up to 10 inches over a longer period.