Florida Keys residents should seriously consider evacuating tonight. While Rita is still a modest tropical storm, I don't like what I see at all from the latest hurricane hunter report. They found a fairly high pressure, 1004 mb, but flight level winds at 5000 feet were already up to 67 knots-- hurricane force--and a 40% complete eyewall has formed. While the odds are considerably against Rita becoming a Category 3 hurricane by the time it moves through the Keys, it is certainly possible. I'd give it a 10% chance of happening, and if I lived in the Keys, I wouldn't risk staying for that 10% chance. The sudden intensification is happening in the face of about 5 - 10 knots of shear, which one can see impacting the SW side of the storm on satellite imagery. The outflow at upper levels is resricted there, but looking VERY impressive on the north side. Rita seems intent on becoming a Category 1 hurricane Monday, and will probably be a Category 1 or 2 hurricane when it moves through the Keys Monday night. The Keys can handle a Category 2 hurricane--barely.
The Keys take a full 72 hours to evacuate, and now that New Orleans has been taken out by Katrina, the Keys represent the number one most vulnerable area in the U.S. for serious loss of life from a hurricane strike. Even though the evacuation order has already been given for visitors and tourists, not everyone will be able to make it out if Rita suddenly intensifies tomorrow to a Category 3 status.
The nighmare scenario is what happened during the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935
, which intensified from a tropical storm with 70 mph winds to a Category 5 hurricane with 160 mph winds in just 42 hours as it approached the Keys. Over 400 Keys residents died in the ensuing disaster.
So, if I lived in the Keys, I would start packing my bags now. Hurricane intensity forecasts are not reliable. I would wait until 11:00 tonight and see what the Hurricane Center has to say, and if they also don't like the looks of this storm, I'd hit the road. If you decide not to go, be sure to take another look very early tomorrow morning, after the 5am advisory comes out, and be ready to hit the road early in the morning. Better to be horribly inconvenienced than dead.