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Southeast Florida braces for Katrina

Slow-moving storm could become hurricane, bring heavy rains
Satellite image taken at 4:28 p.m. ET on Wednesday shows Tropical Storm Katrina bearing down on Florida.




Bahama Islands

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Officials warned millions of people living in southeast Florida to prepare for Tropical Storm Katrina, which forecasters said could strike the coast as a minimal hurricane late Thursday or early Friday.

State emergency officials said Katrina will bring wind and rain to South Florida on Thursday and is forecast to grow into a Category 1 hurricane before making landfall.

Then, the slow-moving storm will take up to a day to creep across the Florida peninsula, dumping up to 20 inches of rain, state meteorologist Ben Nelson said.

"We expect the impacts to South Florida to begin late [Thursday] afternoon with squalls and surge," Nelson said during a briefing in Tallahassee. A 3- to 5-foot storm surge is predicted.

"Now is the time to prepare," urged Mike DeLorenzo, chief of Florida's Emergency Response Team. "Make sure your individual family preparedness plan is up to date."

The storm was making its way across the Bahamas Wednesday night with 45 mph (75 kph) winds.

As of 8 p.m., Katrina's center was 65 miles (105 kph) north-northeast of Nassau, the Bahamian capital, and about 165 miles east of the Florida coast.

The storm had begun a turn to the west and was moving west-northwest at about 9 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

The storm was projected to make landfall between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, cut across the peninsula through the Everglades and then enter the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday.

The center said a hurricane warning was likely to be issued later Wednesday for the northwest Bahamas and parts of Florida.

Forecasters said 6 to 12 inches of rain were possible over the Bahamas, with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches possible. Storm surges of 3 to 5 feet also are possible.

Broward and Palm Beach counties announced they would open shelters and begin evacuating barrier islands Thursday. Palm Beach officials declared a state of emergency Wednesday evening.

Schools will be closed Thursday in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, though they will remain open in Palm Beach County. Government offices also will be closed Thursday in Broward, where school was also canceled Friday.

Florida Power and Light, which serves 1.6 million customers in South Florida, activated its emergency center in Miami on Wednesday.

"Forecasts indicate we should expect heavy rainfall, potential flooding and a lot of tree debris," Geisha Williams, FPL's vice president of distribution, said in a statement. "Flooding may affect underground facilities, and outages might be prolonged as a result."

Busy season

Katrina is the 11th named storm of the turbulent 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, with more than three months left to go.

By contrast, over the past 60 years, the average number of named storms in an entire season was 10, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The large number of early storms prompted forecasters to update their estimates of hurricane activity this year, projecting that as many as 21 named storms might develop. Historically, the busiest months for tropical activity are -- in order of severity -- September, August and October.

Storm-weary Floridians were told to stock up on supplies and be ready to board up their homes as they marked the 13th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, one of the most destructive storms on record.

Andrew, which made landfall in southern Miami-Dade County as a Category 5 hurricane, caused an estimated $20 billion in damage.

On the Saffir-Simpson scale, a Category 5 hurricane packs wind speeds greater than 155 mph. A Category 1 storm has wind speeds of 74 to 95 mph.

Katrina popped up Tuesday as a tropical depression over the Bahamas.

Wednesday morning, the hurricane center upgraded its earlier tropical storm watch to a warning and added a hurricane watch stretching about 175 miles from Florida City to Vero Beach. The watch was extended west to Lake Okeechobee later in the day.

Officials also issued a tropical storm watch for the middle and upper Florida Keys, and for the east coast of Florida from Vero Beach north to Titusville.

Tropical storm conditions include winds of 39-73 mph. Hurricanes have winds of 74 mph or greater.

A watch means storm conditions are possible in the area within about 36 hours; a warning means conditions are expected within 24 hours.

Katrina's long-term forecast path also has potentially bad news for residents of the Florida Panhandle, who already have been hit this year by Tropical Storm Arlene and Hurricane Dennis after being battered by Hurricane Ivan last September.

The hurricane center's latest forecast shows the storm making a turn straight north after it enters the gulf, which would take it directly into the Panhandle by Monday.

However, because of the erratic nature of tropical systems, such predictions often change.

With oil prices surging, Katrina's gathering strength is causing concern among energy traders, who fear the storm will take aim at oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for up to a quarter of U.S. oil output. (Full story)

Another storm, Tropical Depression Jose, dissipated on Tuesday as it moved over the mountains of central Mexico hours after making landfall as a tropical storm with 50 mph winds. (Full story)

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