Most storm-hardened residents of the Florida Keys stayed put Monday despite day-old instructions to evacuate as a ferocious Hurricane Ike ripped across Cuba and stayed on track to swipe the low-lying island chain.
KEY WEST, Fla. — Authorities called off evacuation orders for the Florida Keys on today 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 today. Authorities suggested tourists wait until Wednesday to return and urged residents who had not left to stay indoors until any errant squalls passed.
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.
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 today. "And we see the weather report today, and it appears it all will be OK."
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.
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 today.
"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 today 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 today 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.