Riding Out Rita in Key West

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RITA APPROACHES: A Florida turnpike sign warns of the mandatory evacuation of the Florida Keys

In Key West there's only one way out by car, 90 miles up U.S. 1 to the mainland, which means that in case of hurricane, residents have to decide to get out long before the storm hits. Despite a mandatory evacuation order, about half the city's 26,000 residents decided ride out Hurricane Rita, which hit the area Tuesday morning. That could be a mistake, says Billy Wagner, senior director for emergency management for the Florida Keys. "The people in the Lower Keys, if they don't get out of there, they can lose their lives."

The entire Gulf region, fresh from the devastation of Katrina, is concerned about Rita, which became a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday morning, with winds up to 95 mph, and could intensify into a Category 3 as it moves across the Gulf. The storm is expected to travel westward toward Texas, and authorities in Galveston have already called for a voluntary evacuation of the city beginning Tuesday, several days before Rita is expected to hit.

In Florida on Monday, in the chaos before the storm, long lines of cars snaked northward on U.S. 1 into Miami-Dade County, motorists lined up at gas stations, some of which had run out of regular gas, and shoppers at Costco in North Miami Beach waited on line for bottled water. Some residents of Key Biscayne, south of Miami, bagged beach sand to protect their homes from flooding. Others expressed no desire to evacuate. "We've been through so many of these things," says Jim Brewster, a longtime Key Biscayne resident. "I'm not going anywhere unless it's a Category 4."

Brewster says he feels secure in his ground-level condo. During Hurricane Katrina, he simply rolled shut his hurricane shutters and invited friends over for drinks and a game of rummy. "It was just like living in a cave," he says of the snugness provided by the shutters. "I didn't hear anything." As soon as Rita blows over he plans to hit the Key Biscayne golf course to collect golf balls that shake free of the palm trees during the storm. "The golf course after a hurricane comes alive," Brewster says. "All the birds, all the iguanas come out. It's magical."