Updated: 12:42 p.m. ET July 7, 2005
MIAMI - The Florida Keys ordered an evacuation of tourists and other nonresidents Thursday as Hurricane Dennis stormed through the Caribbean on a course that forecasters said might bring it to the state by the weekend.
Monroe County officials ordered that visitors begin leaving the low-lying Keys at noon ET and ordered the evacuation of mobile home residents beginning at 6 p.m. The Keys were under a hurricane watch, which means winds of at least 74 mph and storm surges are possible by late Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. A tropical storm watch was in affect for the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, including Miami.
Forecasters said that although they still couldn't tell where Dennis would hit the U.S., residents on the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to Florida should be watching the storm.
"The central and east Gulf coasts are the most threatened," said Eric Blake, a meteorologist at the center. "This is the time to take a little bit of action to get some of the rudimentary hurricane supplies."
The skies in the Keys were still sunny and clear Thursday, but people were already preparing for Dennis. Four hurricanes struck Florida last year.
"Just the mere threat will keep people away. We've been through this before, so we have game plans," said Chris Mullins, CEO of Sloppy Joe's bar on the main drag in Key West.
At 11 a.m. ET, Dennis' center was about 80 miles east of Kingston, Jamaica, and about 610 miles south-southeast of Miami. The storm had top sustained winds of near 105 mph and was moving northwest at about 13 mph.
Dennis may strengthen
Dennis is now a Category 2 hurricane, but forecasters said it could strengthen to a Category 3 with winds of 111 mph to 130 mph by the time it enters the Gulf. But they also caution that their ability to predict a storm's strength isn't very accurate.
Florida's Panhandle took a glancing hit Wednesday from Tropical Storm Cindy, but it only brought rain and winds of about 30 mph in Pensacola.