With winds of 175 kilometers an hour, Hurricane Charley strengthened on Friday, as it moved toward the west coast of the (southeastern) U.S. State of Florida. Florida officials have urged nearly two million people to evacuate their homes, and are urging those who stay behind to make last minute preparations and stay indoors.
Hurricane Charley skirted the Florida Keys, after pounding Cuba, and continued its brisk 30 kilometer-an-hour track toward the cities of Ft. Myers, Tampa and St. Petersburg on Florida's west coast.
Charley is the first major hurricane in a generation to strike the region, which is home to about a third of Florida's 17 million residents.
State officials have declared a state of emergency across much of Florida. Governor Jeb Bush says people should stay indoors, until Charley passes.
"Obviously, common sense would dictate that you cannot outrun a hurricane," he said. "The preparation needs to be done in advance of that."
Officials urged nearly two million people to move to shelters as the storm approached, but say only about half were expected to do so, with many people choosing to remain in their homes. There was heavy traffic on the main interstate highway between the Tampa Bay area and the central Florida city of Orlando. Authorities do not force people to leave their homes, but advise residents, emergency workers will not be able to respond to their needs once a hurricane hits.
Hurricane Charley passed to the west of the Florida Keys, sparing the resort island of Key West. Mayor James Weekly says residents coped on Friday with high winds, but were spared major damage.
"You always prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. We have been pretty fortunate over the last few years with storms. We normally get a lot of wind and rain, and that has been the extent of it. So, we have been quite lucky," he said.
Cuban officials on Friday also expressed relief at the relatively minor damage Charley caused to their island. Trees and power lines were down across the island, but there are no reports of serious damage beyond coastal flooding.