KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) – Two years since a hurricane last lashed at Florida, many residents were taking a wait-and-see attitude Monday as a strengthening Tropical Storm Fay swept across the Florida Keys and bore down on the Gulf Coast.

While tourists caught the last flight out of town and headed out of the storm’s path, residents in the carefree Florida Keys were putting up hurricane shutters and checking their generators, but not doing much more.

By midafternoon, heavy rains moving ahead of Fay’s core were pelting the low-lying Keys island chain. Sustained winds of about 33 mph bent palm trees, and some gusts hit 51 mph.

The sixth named storm in the Atlantic hurricane season was expected to become a hurricane before curling up the state’s western coast and hitting Florida’s mainland sometime Tuesday.

“There are bad storms and there are nice ones, and this is a nice one,” said Becky Weldon, a 43-year-old guest house manager in Key West. “It cleans out all the trees, it gives people a little work to do and it gets the tourists out of here for a few days.”

Officials were worried that complacency could cost lives, repeatedly urging people across the state to take Fay seriously. The message got through to tourists – Monroe County Mayor Mario Di Gennaro estimated 25,000 fled the Keys. Some residents have taken steps since the busy 2004-05 storm years, when eight hurricanes hammered Florida, such as buying generators and strengthening homes, but not everyone is as prepared.

Since 2006, Florida has taken several steps to make sure its residents are prepared. More than 400,000 houses were inspected under a program that provides grants to people to strengthen their houses.

Florida law also now requires some 970 gas stations along hurricane evacuation routes statewide to have backup generators so they can keep pumping gas if the power goes out.

As it moved though the Carribean, Fay was blamed for at least 14 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, including two babies who were found in a river after a bus crash.

The storm center passed over the Key West around 5 p.m. on Monday, and a hurricane warning was in effect along southwestern Florida from Flamingo to just south of the Tampa Bay area. A tropical storm warning in effect in the east from Flagler Beach southward.

At 5 p.m. EDT, Fay was about 145 miles of Fort Myers and moving north-northwest at about 12 mph. Sustained winds were about 60 mph with some higher gusts.

National Hurricane Center officials said the storm would likely make landfall sometime Tuesday morning. Forecasters said Fay would probably be at or near hurricane strength, which is winds of at least 74 mph.



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