Florida Hurricane Katrina
Rain began to fall and the wind picked up Thursday as the outer bands of Tropical Storm Katrina reached South Florida.
The storm's center is predicted to make landfall, possibly at hurricane strength, in the evening Thursday or early Friday.
More than 5 million people in Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties were warned to prepare for hurricane conditions as Katrina slowed over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and gained strength.
Gov. Jeb Bush urged Florida residents to take Katrina seriously, even if the storm does not develop into a major hurricane.
"I assure you, this is a dangerous storm," Bush said in Tallahassee. "This storm will bring a lot of rainfall over an extended period of time."
He added that Katrina could pose the most danger as torrential rain continues after the center passes.
A 170-mile stretch of coastline between Vero Beach and Florida City is under a hurricane warning, which means winds of at least 74 mph are expected.
But the biggest trouble will be rain, up to 20 inches in some spots, said state meteorologist Ben Nelson.
The forecast calls for Katrina to make landfall between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. But forecasters warned that the storm could wobble at the last minute to the north or south.
Katrina then is predicted to slice across the Florida peninsula through the Everglades before entering the Gulf of Mexico late Friday and regaining hurricane strength.
If Katrina makes landfall near Fort Lauderdale, it would be the city's first direct hit since Hurricane Cleo 41 years ago.
From there, the track was more difficult to predict, but Bush and other officials urged residents of Florida's west coast and Panhandle to prepare.
Some gas stations along the Interstate 95 corridor between Miami and Fort Lauderdale were reportedly running dry, and people were stocking up on bottled water, plywood and other supplies. Bush said gas shortages could occur in Katrina's wake.
In Hollywood, near Fort Lauderdale, Alberto Soddu was buying plywood to cover some of his windows that aren't protected by shutters.
"After the (Hurricane) Andrew experience, I am taking it seriously," he told CNN. "It's coming."
At 1 p.m. ET, Katrina's core winds had increased from to 65 mph. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told CNN the storm has a "very good chance" of strengthening into a Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane by the time it reaches Florida.
"People need to take it very seriously," Mayfield said.
Officials in Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, warned residents to expect street flooding, downed trees and power lines and inoperative traffic lights.
Boat owners were urged to move their vessels inland. Drawbridges in Broward and Palm Beach counties were locked in the down position at noon.
In Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Alvarez recommended that people living in low-lying areas and mobile homes voluntarily evacuate and use a public shelter at a local middle school. Shelters opened this afternoon as many South Florida residents evacuated the barrier islands.
As forecast, the storm slowed as it neared South Florida. Forecasters said that means it could hang over the area much longer, creating the potential for 6 to 12 inches of rain.
Schools were closed in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and students in Palm Beach county were sent home early.
Florida Power and Light, which serves 1.6 million customers in South Florida, activated its emergency center in Miami on Wednesday.
"Flooding may affect underground facilities, and outages might be prolonged as a result," said Geisha Williams, FPL's vice president of distribution.
At noon Thursday, Katrina's center was about 40 miles off the coast, between Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton. It was moving west at about 6 mph, and expected to slow down, according to the National Hurricane Center.
"It's going to give the storm more time to strengthen," Ed Rappaport of the National Hurricane Center said of Katrina's slow speed.
The hurricane center's latest five-day forecast shows Katrina curving to the north after it enters the Gulf, which would take it directly into the Panhandle, at hurricane strength, by late Sunday. Because of the erratic nature of tropical systems, such long-term predictions often change.
A tropical storm watch remains in effect for the central Florida coast, from Vero Beach north to Titusville, including Merritt Island, and for the Florida Keys from Seven Mile Bridge to Florida City. A tropical storm watch means tropical storm conditions are possible within 36 hours.
Katrina is the 11th named storm of the busy 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, with more than three months left to go. By contrast, in the past 60 years, the average number of named storms in an entire season was just 10, according to statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The large number of early storms prompted forecasters to update their estimates of hurricane activity this year, projecting that as many as 21 named storms might develop. Historically, the busiest months for tropical activity are September, August and October, respectively.
With oil prices surging, Katrina's gathering strength is causing concern among energy traders, who fear the storm will slow oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for up to a quarter of U.S. oil output.