Originally created 09/22/05

Rita spares 'really lucky' Florida Keys



KEY WEST, Fla. - Florida Keys residents found at least 100 homes with minor flooding from Hurricane Rita's storm surge Wednesday, but most considered themselves lucky to be largely spared from the storm that grew much stronger after swiping the island chain.

Rita's eye and most destructive weather passed south of the Keys on Tuesday when it was a Category 2 storm. By Wednesday morning, it was a Category 4 hurricane with 140 mph top sustained winds, but it was heading to Gulf Coast areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and had left the Keys behind by then.

"I'm turning on the A/C and putting a vacancy sign up. We're really lucky," said Mona Santiago, the owner of Southernmost Point Guest House, as she swept water off the front porch. "The sun is coming out. We're getting ready for business."

Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley said he found no structural damage after touring the island city Wednesday. He estimated damage to be in the millions of dollars, far below the devastation caused by other hurricanes that have hit the state.

"The city of Key West will be open for business this afternoon," he said.

Crews worked to restore power to about 7,000 homes and businesses without power, and Mr. Weekley expected Key West to be fully restored later in the day. Store owners pulled plywood off windows on the main tourist drag, Duval Street. Seaweed and sand was cleared from streets.

Tourists and all 78,000 Keys residents were told to evacuate before the storm. Residents who actually left were told to come back Wednesday, while tourists were scheduled to return Friday. The Keys have been evacuated twice this year because of hurricanes.

Seven hurricanes have brushed past or hit Florida in the past 13 months.

Gov. Jeb Bush briefly visited the Monroe County emergency operations center Wednesday in Marathon, telling reporters afterward that the Keys evacuation was necessary even if it disrupted business and tourism.

"It's part of doing business in a state where if you don't respond, the costs are enormous," Mr. Bush said.