Though no longer expected to arrive as a hurricane, Tropical Storm Ernesto still could batter South Florida with up to 10 inches of rain, flooding and wind gusts to 70 mph, starting today and into Thursday, forecasters warned.
Tropical storm warnings and hurricane watches remain in effect from Vero Beach south to the Keys, with Ernesto forecast to hit near Homestead, south of Miami, tonight. Then it is expected to churn northward.
A flood watch was to be posted by this morning.
Initially, the system was forecast to hit the region as a Category 1 hurricane, possibly stronger. But Cuba, in large part, deflated it.
As Ernesto staggered over that country's mountains, it was barely able to maintain tropical storm strength, forecasters said.
Ernesto already has claimed a life: A woman was swept away by floods in Haiti. The coasts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti were doused with up to 20 inches of rain in some areas but there were no reports of severe damage.
Under the latest forecast, South Florida should see conditions deteriorate this afternoon, said Bob Ebaugh, a specialist with the National Weather Service in Miami.
The heaviest rains and sustained winds of 65 mph should hit overnight and continue into tomorrow morning, with conditions slowly improving by the afternoon. The squally weather could linger into Thursday.
"Rainfall amounts could reach 5 to 10 inches across South Florida," Ebaugh said.
Yesterday, Gov. Jeb Bush urged Florida residents to have supplies to live comfortably for 72 hours and assume the worst.
Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management director, said he expects coastal flooding, power outages and light structural damage from the storm.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they are prepared to assist. The agency's stockpile includes more than 340 truckloads of water, 300 truckloads of ice, 18 of ready-to-eat meals and 44 of tarps and plastic sheeting.
"From Texas up through to Maine we have pre-positioned disaster supplies and plan to be responsive in the event of a hurricane," agency spokeswoman Mary Hudak said.
Remembering the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, residents waited in long lines at gas stations and jammed grocery and home improvement stores yesterday.
"I waited for an hour," growled Louis Raynold, 41, of Fort Lauderdale, while at a Mobil station in Weston. "I didn't have gas when Wilma came. I don't want the same thing this time."
Because the Keys appear to be Ernesto's first stop in Florida, visitors and mobile home residents were ordered to leave yesterday.
After it departs the densely populated coastal areas of South Florida, Ernesto was forecast to aim toward Daytona Beach, re-emerge in the Atlantic and head toward South Carolina, possibly building into a hurricane along the way.
Ken Kaye and Scott Wyman write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.