"You really have no idea what will happen when it comes across that warm gulf water," said business owner Kermit Carpenter.
Florida Keys officials closed schools, opened shelters and urged visitors to leave as Fay threatened to strengthen into a hurricane today. Residents and tourists seemed in no hurry to evacuate.
Traffic remained light leaving Key West and the Lower Keys this afternoon. In the Upper Keys, authorities say traffic is becoming heavy.
Fay could start pelting parts of the Keys and South Florida late Monday or early Tuesday as a strong tropical storm or minimal hurricane.
Fay, the sixth storm of the 2008 Atlantic season, picked up some momentum Sunday afternoon as it headed toward Cuba. It could be a hurricane by the time it reaches the island's center.
At 2 p.m., Fay's center was located about 285 miles southeast of Key West and moving west-northwest at about 17 mph. The storm had maximum sustained winds near 50 mph with some gusting.
Keys officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors starting at 8 a.m. Sunday and asked those who had not yet arrived to postpone their trips.
"We hate to inconvenience those visitors that had plans to be in the Keys the next few days, but their well-being is our top priority," said Monroe County Mayor Mario Di Gennaro, chairman of the Keys tourist development council.
Officials said hotels and businesses won't be forced to remove visitors, but should use common sense. They also said schools in the Keys will be closed Monday and Tuesday.
With the warnings, some Key West businesses began putting up hurricane shutters, but tourists and residents still strolled lazily through downtown, having coffee and eating breakfast.
"We've been living in Florida now for 10 years, so we need to get some stuff together, but we're not going to rush out of here," John Civette said as he strolled the shop-lined streets with his wife, Tonya.
Civette said they would cut their vacation short and head home to the southwest Florida city of Bonita Springs to prepare their home for the storm.
Paul and Sandy Dunko, of Naples, Fla., were having breakfast with their family Sunday morning before heading home to secure their boat and put up their hurricane shutters. Fay could reach that area late Monday or early Tuesday.
"We've got to get back and buckle up our own house," Paul Dunko said. "We're hoping the traffic won't be too horrible."
Landfall could potentially be late Tuesday or early Wednesday and it could be anywhere from the western coast to the southwestern coast of Florida, hurricane center meteorologist Chris Sisko said.
Sisko said Fay's track is similar to 2004's Hurricane Charley, a much stronger Category 4 storm.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Saturday as officials in Tallahassee opened their emergency operations center.
A tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch were in effect from Craig Key westward to the Dry Tortugas.
A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible, generally within 36 hours. A tropical storm warning means tropical storm conditions are expected within 24 hours. Forecasters said they issued both for some parts of Florida because they're not yet sure how much Fay will strengthen.
A hurricane watch was in effect for the remainder of the Keys and on the Florida west coast south of Anna Maria Island, just south of the Tampa Bay area. A tropical storm watch was also in effect for the southeast coast of Florida from Ocean Reef north to Jupiter Inlet, as well as for Lake Okeechobee.
Keys emergency officials often take the precaution of ordering early evacuations when a storm threatens because traffic can back up for miles on the single highway to Florida's mainland.
Besides the threat of damage from high winds, most of the islands sit at sea level and could be flooded by Fay's storm surge.
Flooding from Fay killed four people Saturday in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Keys officials encouraged people who live in low-lying areas, in mobile homes and on boats to evacuate and said four shelters would open at 7 p.m. Sunday.
Tropical Storm Lashes Cuba
Authorities in Cuba evacuated dozens of sparsely populated, low-lying communities and ordered Cubans to pay close attention to the storm, which they said could spark strong storm surges, flooding and mudslides.
Jose Rubiera, Cuba's chief meteorologist, said Fay had brought gusts of wind of up to 70 mph per hour as its center roared close to two coastal communities on the island's southern tip. Still, he said civil defense officials were mostly concerned about the effects of heavy rains.
Cuba's government issued a hurricane warning from Havana eastward to central Sancti Spiritus province.
Authorities in four eastern and central Cuban provinces evacuated residents, pulled fishing boats out of the water and moved farm animals to higher ground, while setting up temporary shelters and food distribution centers, civil defense authorities said. In Havana, dark clouds rolled in by midday, but rainfall was light and there was little sign of concern on the streets.
But Fay already was drenching the southern coast. In the city of Niquero, authorities converted a downtown hotel into a shelter for evacuees.
"It's raining intensely, but the wind comes and goes," said a front desk clerk at the Hotel Niquero, who said he was not authorized to have his name appear in the foreign press. He said there had been no major flooding and that "we hope the worst is over."
A man died Saturday in Haiti while trying to cross a river in Leogane, south of Port-au-Prince.
Fay also damaged crucial farmland as Haiti contends with a food crisis that has sparked deadly riots, although it was unclear how many acres were affected.
In neighboring Dominican Republic, flood waters drowned a woman and her 13-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew, after they tried to cross a swollen river in a car, civil defense agency director Luis Luna Paulino said.