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All tourists and recreational vehicles were urged to evacuate the Florida Keys early Thursday as a powerful Hurricane Ivan was on a course to hit the area by Sunday, according to the Associated Press. The storm became a Category 5 hurricane overnight with winds up to 160 mph.
Monroe County emergency officials said the order was effective at 9 a.m. Thursday. It is the third visitor evacuation ordered in the Keys in a month, the previous two issued for Hurricanes Charley and Frances.
Forecasters say Ivan could continue to strengthen as it moves toward Jamaica, where it was expected to make landfall Friday or Saturday before heading on to Cuba and then possibly Florida. At 8 a.m. EDT, Ivan’s center was about 455 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami.
National Hurricane Center forecasters predict that Ivan could hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane, with winds of 131 to 155 mph, late Sunday or early Monday.
“I don’t think that people will think twice when we tell them it’s a Four heading right at us. I think they will be pretty responsive,” said Monroe County emergency manager Irene Toner.
Ivan pummeled Grenada, Barbados and other islands with devastating winds and rains, causing at least 15 deaths, before setting a direct course for Jamaica, Cuba and the hurricane-weary southern United States.
“After Jamaica, it’s probably going to hit somewhere in the U.S., unfortunately,'” said meteorologist Jennifer Pralgo of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. “We’re hoping it’s not Florida again, but it’s taking a fairly similar track to Charley at the moment.”
Ivan became the fourth major hurricane of a busy Atlantic season Sunday.