TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – Officials warned about a million residents and tourists Thursday to get out of the way of Hurricane Charley, saying parts of Tampa’s downtown and nearby areas could be submerged by the massive storm surge likely when the hurricane strikes Florida’s central gulf coast today.

“It does have the potential of devastating impact. … This is a scary, scary thing,” Gov. Jeb Bush said.

The evacuation zone stretched along Florida’s west coast from Key West to north of Tampa.

Charlie was expected to pass west of the Keys at Florida’s tip early today before hitting the Tampa Bay area in the afternoon with winds up to 110 mph, heavy rain, sporadic tornadoes and the dangerous storm surge, said Hugh Cobb, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. With winds that high, it would be a powerful Category 3 hurricane.

Residents of the Tampa Bay area, where the eye is projected to hit, south to the Naples area were told to expect a storm surge of 10-13 feet. State meteorologist Ben Nelson said the surge could reach 16 feet in the Tampa area if Charley hits at 120 mph.

The bulk of the evacuations were in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which include Tampa and St. Petersburg, a city that sits on a peninsula.

All residents of MacDill Air Force Base, on another peninsula in Tampa Bay, were ordered out, with only essential personnel remaining. MacDill is home to U.S. Central Command, the nerve center of the war in Iraq.

“MacDill Air Force Base will probably be mostly underwater and parts of downtown Tampa could be underwater if we have a Category 3,” Nelson said. “In a Category 3, you can almost get to the point where Pinellas County becomes an island.”

Heavy traffic flowed across the three Tampa Bay bridges linking Pinellas with Hillsborough and the mainland

“There will be a period of time where if you stay behind and you change your mind and you want to be rescued, no one can help you. We aren’t going to go out on a suicide mission,” Pinellas Emergency Management Chief Gary Vickers told people in the evacuation zone.

The hurricane bore down after Tropical Storm Bonnie blew ashore Thursday morning on the Florida Panhandle with winds estimated near 50 mph. Bonnie failed to produce any reported flooding, but the one-two punch of tropical weather was highly unusual. Storms have not struck so close together in Florida since 1906.

About 6.5 million of Florida’s 17 million residents were in Charley’s projected path, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

The evacuation request was Florida’s biggest since 1999, when Hurricane Floyd brushed the state’s east coast and prompted officials to urge a record 1.3 million to evacuate.

Many residents prepared for the worst, buying plywood to board up homes and stocking up on water, canned food and batteries to ride out the hurricane. Beth Ciombor of Sarasota was at a Home Depot loading two sheets of plywood onto the top of her minivan while her 2-year-old son watched.

“I’m on the verge of tears. It’s so frightening,” she said.

Charley became a Caribbean hurricane Wednesday, moving past Jamaica and over the Cayman Islands. At 8 p.m. EDT, it was over the Isle of Youth off southern Cuba on its way to Florida.

Forecasters said Charley had top sustained winds of about 105 mph, up from 90 mph earlier Thursday. It was moving north-northwest near 17 mph and was expected to strengthen, meteorologists said.

Hurricane force winds extended outward 30 miles from the eye; tropical storm force winds went out 125 miles.

A hurricane warning was issued for the Keys from the Dry Tortugas to the Seven Mile Bridge and along southwestern Florida from the southern tip of the mainland to Bayport, 52 miles north of the St. Petersburg area; a watch was issued from north of Bayport to the Suwannee River; and a tropical storm warning was issued for the middle and upper Keys and Florida Bay. A tropical storm watch was in effect on the Atlantic coast for Jupiter Inlet near West Palm Beach up north to Altamaha Sound on the central Georgia coast.

In the Keys, a steady line of traffic, marked by sport utility vehicles pulling boats on trailers, drove north along U.S. 1 on Thursday as visitors and mobile home residents followed orders to evacuate the entire 100-mile-long island chain.

Al Perkins, 55, a small business owner in Key West, placed office computers and a photocopier in garbage bags while a colleague hammered metal hurricane shutters over windows.

“If it gets over 150 miles per hour winds, I’m outta here. Anything less than that, I’ve already been in, so it’s not a problem,” he said.

Key West International Airport closed Thursday in anticipation of Charley, and St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport was closing after the last flight Thursday night. Operations at Tampa International Airport and at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport were continuing into Friday.

Amtrak suspended train service between New York City and Miami for Friday. Amtrak’s Auto Train that operates between Lorton, Va. and Sanford, Fla., was also canceled Friday. Service between Boston, Washington, D.C., and Newport News, Va. was not affected.

Bonnie chugged ashore Thursday morning, bringing rain and wind up to 50 mph. But by midday, the sun was shining in Apalachicola, flags were limp and the surf was calming after a couple of hours of steady rain. By late afternoon Bonnie was downgraded to a tropical depression as it headed into Georgia.

Bonnie and Charley are the second and third named storms of the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

Associated Press Writers David Royse in Apalachicola, Ken Thomas in Key West, Vickie Chachere in Sarasota and Adrian Sainz and John Pain in Miami contributed to this report.

On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

AP-ES-08-12-04 2153EDT

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