Tourists leave airport of Key West while hurricane Wilma heads towards Floridas southern west coast
Carlos Barria  /  Reuters
Tourists leave the airport of Key West while Hurricane Wilma heads towards Florida's southern west coast on Thursday.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/20/2005 2:36:06 PM ET 2005-10-20T18:36:06

KEY WEST, Fla. — Residents on this storm-weary resort island are boarding up and heading north as Hurricane Wilma churns toward the Gulf Coast.

Mandatory evacuations are under way for tourists and some residents who live in mobile homes. The city plans to issue a mandatory evacuation for the rest of the locals by mid-day Friday.

With images of people trapped by Katrina's flood waters fresh in their minds, residents here know that staying during a strong hurricane could be a deadly mistake. Yet many on the small island don't own cars and local officials are taking that into account in terms of evacuation plans.

David Fernandez, Key West's Director of Transportation, wants to make sure as many people as possible can leave before Wilma comes ashore. His department is using 16 city buses and 15 school buses to transport residents to a shelter at Florida International University in Miami.

Moving people out
"With 72 hours of operation, we can transport about 1,200 people on Key West buses alone," said Fernandez. "The city buses can take around 22 people, seated, and for standing room only, about 35 to 40 [people]," he estimated.

Buses will run routes through Key West, then up through the other Florida Keys until at least noon on Friday. A determination will be made then whether to continue the service on Saturday.

The round-trip takes about eight hours, according to Fernandez.

"I just hope people don't wait until the last minute", he said.

The Lower Keys Medical Center isn't waiting: instead, it's airlifting 16 patients by C-130 military transport plane to a sister hospital, Riverview Regional Medical Center in Alabama. 

Administrators say 10 more critical care patients will be taken by ambulance to hospitals in Miami-Dade County.

No Goombay Festival this weekend
Wilma is the fourth major hurricane to affect the Keys in the past four months. Mandatory evacuations also were called during hurricanes Dennis and Rita.

Besides wind and water damage, Wilma could damage the area's economy.

The famous Goombay Festival and Fantasy Fest activities scheduled for this weekend in Key West have been postponed until at least Tuesday. Hotel and restaurant operators worry the loss in tourism could mean millions of dollars in lost revenue to local businesses.

But with schools and government offices closed, and tourists sent packing, there's little business owners can do but board up, and wait for Wilma to come calling.

Donna Gregory is an NBC News Correspondent on assignment in Key West, Fla.

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