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Floridians stock food, gasoline as storm nears

MIAMI -- Florida residents rushed to fill prescriptions and stood in long lines for gasoline, food, and other supplies yesterday as officials warned people not to wait for Tropical Storm Ernesto to return to hurricane strength before taking precautions.

Forecasters said Ernesto could grow back into a hurricane in the warm waters off Cuba and come ashore in South Florida as early as tonight, one year after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast.

It would be the first hurricane to hit the United States this year.

Memories of Katrina and the seven hurricanes that have struck Florida since 2004 were fresh in many minds.

``Make sure you have the supplies for the 72 hours after the storm," Governor Jeb Bush warned people in Tallahassee, a day after declaring a state of emergency. ``A hurricane's a hurricane, and it has a devastation we've already seen. All you have to do is rewind to last year and see."

Pedro Ballesteros, 40, carried two 6-gallon gas tanks out of a Home Depot for his home generator. `` I'm taking care of everything that's important -- flashlights, batteries, gasoline."

About 400 miles of the state's densely populated Atlantic coast and the Keys were under a tropical storm warning and hurricane watch. A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch was extended from Vero Beach on Florida's Atlantic side to Bonita Beach on the Gulf coast.

At 11 p.m. yesterday, the fifth named storm of the hurricane season had top sustained winds of 40 miles per hour, 1 mile per hour above the minimum to be a tropical storm and down from hurricane-strength 75 miles per hour Sunday, the National Hurricane Center said. It was centered over Cuba, about 20 miles north of Camaguey, and about 325 miles southeast of Key West.

The storm was moving west-northwest.

During the weekend, Ernesto became the first hurricane of the Atlantic season and lashed the Dominican Republic and Haiti. One person was reported killed along Haiti's southern coast.

There were no immediate reports of any damage or injuries in Cuba. The government regularly undertakes mass evacuations before tropical storms and hurricanes.

Richard Knabb, a forecaster at the hurricane center in Miami, urged people not to become complacent. ``Just because the system is not a hurricane now doesn't mean it can't be a hurricane later," he said.

In the Keys, visitors were ordered out, and authorities planned to evacuate sick and elderly people to Miami. Mobile home residents in the Keys were also urged to clear out. Miami-Dade County opened a shelter for people from the Keys.

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