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Florida Keys get 1st hurricane-proof weather post

Written by: Staff
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KEY WEST, Fla., Mar 21 (Reuters) For the first time in more than a century of weather forecasting from ''hurricane alley,'' the vulnerable Florida Keys has an ultra-hurricane-proof weather station.

Complete with a reinforced inner bathroom capable of withstanding 250-mph (400-kph) winds, the modernistic 5.1 million dollars, 740-sq-metre building was officially dedicated yesterday.

Key West's old weather station next to the airport, with a view of the Atlantic, proved worrisome to meteorologists because of storm surges during the eight hurricanes that brushed the fragile island chain during 2005 and 2004.

''It was not the view you want,'' said Matt Strahan, Key West's top meteorologist. ''Now we have a place where we're safe.'' Hurricane Wilma -- at one point the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic -- swept by on October 24, sending a 3-metre storm surge washing over the Keys.

But at about 4.3 metres above sea level and a half mile from the shore, the new station remained high and dry. It has been under construction since June 2004 and opens in time for the start of the next Atlantic hurricane season on June 1.

The looming hurricane season is expected to be fierce although not necessarily as busy as 2005, which broke a stack of hurricane records. Of the 27 named storms, 15 became hurricanes. Three of those, Katrina, Rita and Wilma, ranked among the strongest Atlantic storms on record.

Key West has had 11 different weather stations since the first opened in November 1870, but never before one capable of withstanding a Category 5 storm, the most powerful on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.

Twelve major hurricanes of category 3 or above have walloped the Keys in the past 136 years.

The station is responsible for forecasting the weather over 64,750 sq km of water, including sea lanes used by 40 per cent of the world's shipping traffic and through which 60 per cent of US oil imports flow.

REUTERS VJ RAI0443

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