ORLANDO, Fla. – Hurricane Charley, after raking Cuba and the Keys, is expected to take aim at Florida’s west coast and possibly strike the Orlando area by Friday, forecasters said.

And in a rare one-two punch, Tropical Storm Bonnie is barreling toward the rain-soaked Panhandle, set to make landfall today. If both systems stay on track, it would be the first time in nearly a century that Florida has been hit by two tropical cyclones within 24 hours.

According to Hurricane Center projections, after Florida both storms could spread rain along the East Coast, with the remnants of Bonnie possibly arriving in New England Saturday morning, and Charley reaching there Sunday morning.

The storms put most of Florida on high alert, with the Keys ordering a mandatory evacuation of visitors, the Panhandle preparing and the Orlando area bracing for its first hurricane-force winds in 25 years.

Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, and officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency began moving generators, water and other disaster supplies in place.

“We’re working closely with the state, and we’ve had some practice at this so I think we’re in good shape,” said FEMA spokeswoman Mary Hudak.

Forecasters were particularly worried about a slowing but strengthening Charley, which Wednesday night was packing winds of about 75 mph. It was expected to turn more northward Thursday, reaching the lower Keys early Friday before striking Florida’s west coast later that day and then zipping across the state – perhaps with the Orlando area in its bull’s-eye.

The big question was the timing of the turn.

“If Charley follows the forecast track, Central Florida will get it pretty good,” said Stacy Stewart, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in west Miami-Dade County. “If it’s a major hurricane when it makes landfall, it could still be a hurricane as it crosses the state, and the conditions are not terribly unfavorable for that scenario to be realistic.”

But Max Mayfield, the center’s director, and other forecasters cautioned that the forecast track is always a big if, with a built-in average error rate that grows proportionally with the distance from landfall.

For every 24 hours a storm travels, its path can vary by up to 100 miles. That means, for example, if Charley makes landfall closer to, say, Naples than Tampa Bay, it would change its trajectory across the state.

“I think the key words for everybody right now are: Prepare and stay aware,” said Ben Nelson, state meteorologist in Tallahassee.

Another nagging question was how strong Charley would become. Forecasters aren’t skilled at predicting intensity, but with Charley heading into the northwest Caribbean Sea, an area notorious for its warm, storm-fueling waters, the minor hurricane was ripe for intensification.

“We don’t see any reason why it won’t strengthen,” Mayfield said. “People in those areas really need to start paying attention and dust off their hurricane plans.”

The only time two tropical systems have hit Florida within 12 hours was back in 1906, when storms had numbers instead of names. Storm 9, a tropical storm, made landfall at 7 a.m. on Oct. 17 near Daytona Beach, and just 12 hours later Storm 8, a hurricane, hit the Keys, Mayfield said.

Forecasters were less concerned about Tropical Storm Bonnie, which was expected to become a hurricane overnight and then weaken again before striking land Thursday afternoon. That’s thanks to an upper level trough of low pressure that was diving into the lower Mississippi Valley and expected to shear Bonnie’s upper-level winds.

Still, forecasters said, the tropical storm was nothing to scoff at. At the least, it was expected to be a soaker in an area that’s already been deluged by recent heavy rains. The forecast called for a storm surge of between 2 feet and 4 feet and rainfall of up to 6 inches.

“It’s a ready-made flood situation,” Stewart said. “But the good news is Bonnie will not be hanging around long. That upper-level trough is picking it up and should move it quickly to the northeast.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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