Miami Tropical Storm Ernesto sloshed rather than slammed ashore - surprising forecasters by failing to strengthen Tuesday as it approached Florida.
Briefly a hurricane Sunday, Ernesto lost much of its punch crossing mountainous eastern Cuba. The storm crossed the Florida Straits with top sustained winds of 45 mph before making landfall as a weak tropical storm at 11:30 p.m. on Plantation Key, about 60 miles southwest of Miami, forecasters said.
"Fortunately it didn't get too big," said David Rudduck of the American Red Cross. "It was the little train that couldn't."
That was good news for Florida, the victim of seven hurricanes since 2004.
"Frankly, I am surprised it has not strengthened," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center. "But for all those thousands and thousands of people with blue-tarped roofs, that's good news. ... As a homeowner, I'm very happy. As a forecaster, I'm not very happy."
As the threat of damaging winds abated, rain became the biggest concern, and police distributed thousands of sandbags to low-lying Miami suburbs. Five to 10 inches of rain was possible, forecasters said.
Accidents on rain-slickened expressways killed at least two people. A Miami woman died after the car in which she was riding hydroplaned and struck a palm tree, and a motorcyclist was killed near Boca Raton after skidding and being struck by two other vehicles.
Still, officials had feared much worse weather. In the Keys, Monroe County emergency management director Irene Toner smiled as she watched the steady rainfall.
"This is great," she said. "Compared to what it could have been, we are fortunate."
Ernesto was forecast to move up the middle of the state and exit on the northeast coast by early Thursday, moving into the Atlantic and potentially gaining hurricane strength before hitting Georgia or the Carolinas.
NASA had scrubbed Tuesday's launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. The space agency began moving the shuttle back to its hangar to protect it from the storm, then reversed course later in the day when forecasters predicted that winds would not be as severe as initially feared.
Tropical storm watches or warnings remained in effect for much of coastal Florida. A hurricane watch was posted for the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas.