Ike Veers, Fla. Keys Evacuation Called Off

Joey Marullo adjusts lines on the Jolly II Rover sailboat in Key West, Fla. in preparation for Hurricane Ike Monday, Sept. 8, 2008. Key West is under a tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch. Marullo brought the boat to Key West in 2005 for a charter from New Orleans, and has not returned since following the damage to his marina in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Authorities called off evacuation orders for the Florida Keys on Monday as a ferocious Hurricane Ike shifted south over Cuba and appeared on track to miss the low-lying U.S. island chain.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned that it was still too early to tell where Ike would strike after entering the southeastern Gulf of Mexico by Tuesday night. Gulf Coast communities as far away as Texas were keeping a nervous eye on the storm, especially in Louisiana, where residents are still recovering from Hurricane Gustav.

Evacuation orders that had 15,000 tourists flee the Keys over the weekend were set to expire at noon Monday. Authorities suggested residents wait until Wednesday to return and urged those who had not left to stay indoors until any errant squalls passed. Tourists should wait until the weekend.

A tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch remained in effect for the Keys, though Ike's expected track was well south and west of the islands.

And even if Florida dodged a bullet for now, State Meteorologist Ben Nelson told CBS Radio, "Once Ike gets back into the Gulf of Mexico it's very likely to intensify back to a major hurricane." And where it's headed is anyone's guess.

The fact that it is threatening the Gulf Coast is keeping oil producers from resuming work at off-shore drilling platforms and refineries there which were taken offline before Hurricane Gustav rolled through.

That's causing oil prices to rise, says Energy Analyst Phil Flynn with Alaron Trading in Chicago: "It's blowing up the price of oil and blowing it down depending on whatever the latest track of the storm is," Flynn told CBS Radio. "It's having a major impact on oil prices even before the storm hits."

A Hardy Bunch

Most storm-hardened Keys residents said they had never intended to leave, or even worry.

"Us folks have lived here for years. We worry but we always think it will be OK," said 80-year-old Barbara Kellner while walking her dog in Key West early Monday. "And we see the weather report today, and it appears it all will be OK."

Key West shop owner Mike McClain is taking the storm seriously. "This is a pretty big storm," he told CBS Radio. "I mean, if it jogs one way or the other, it can jam you."

Key West residents are a hardy bunch, generations of whom have lived through storms. They typically take a wait-and-see stance, and Monroe County officials had anticipated that most of the roughly 25,000 residents of the Lower Keys would have stayed put through Ike.

One Key West man who calls himself Uncle Russell told CBS Radio that longtime residents are sanguine about their hurricanes. "I think you'll find the general attitude of most people who've made it through a few is just to lay back and see what happens. We know what to do when it comes."

Many of those residents complained that authorities needlessly scared people away.

"I think they called the guns out a little too soon. They killed business," said Deborah Dietrich, the manager of a nearly empty bakery. "Whether we have hurricane ruin or not, there's financial ruin."

Dietrich said the Croissants de France bakery would be lucky to tally $300 in sales for the weekend. They usually bring in more than $6,000 each day of an average weekend with no storm looming, she said.

Monroe County Mayor Mario Di Gennaro said he didn't regret telling tourists and residents to get out of town ahead of Ike, though he acknowledged that such orders are costly. He estimated businesses throughout the Keys lost about $10 million because of evacuations for Tropical Storm Fay last month.

Officials estimate tourists spend about $175 a day in the Keys. With some 20,000 having fled for Ike, that's about $3.5 million for each day they're gone.

Many business owners along the evacuation route in the Upper Keys also had reluctantly boarded up their properties. A sign outside Island Silver and Spice in Islamorada said "Closed Til Ike Passes." At the Village Gourmet diner, only three customers showed up for breakfast Monday.

"It kills my business," owner David Gillon said of the evacuation orders. "It's hard enough to make it in the Keys as it is. Every time they do these evacuations, it's two weeks to a month before you get back to where it was."

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Ike roared ashore in eastern Cuba Sunday night, slamming into Holguin province at 9:45 p.m. EDT as a dangerous Category 3 storm. The hurricane weakened to a Category 2 storm early Monday as it moved over Cuba, with wind speeds still at about 100 mph.

Though Ike's storm surge still could push up to 3 feet of water into the Keys, officials said flooding isn't a concern.

"This isn't going to be anything like Fay," Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said.

Fay came ashore with gusty winds and downpours, leaving spotty flooding up to 3 feet deep in some places of town, but largely spared Key West of any major damage.

Ike's winds and massive storm surge ripped apart houses and toppled trees Monday in Cuba as it headed across the country toward Havana and its historic but decaying old buildings. More than 770,000 Cubans evacuated to shelters or higher ground.

Ike tore through Cuba after roaring across the Caribbean, killing at least 58 people in Haiti. Forecasters had the storm track continuing west over Cuba's western coast before taking aim at the Gulf of Mexico.

And once again, New Orleans — still recovering from the weaker-than-expected Hurricane Gustav last week — could be in the crosshairs as Ike winds through its uncertain path.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Sunday for Ike and urged residents to get ready to head north again. He said so-called "hurricane fatigue" should not prevent people from evacuating their homes for the second time in 10 days.

"We are likely going to have to become accustomed to evacuating more frequently than when we were younger," Jindal said.