Visitors of the Florida Keys began evacuating early Sunday as Tropical Storm Fay prompted forecasters to issue a hurricane watch for the area.

Emergency officials asked visitors to evacuate the chain of islands starting at 8 a.m. as the storm neared Cuba.

Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson said as many as 25,000 visitors could be leaving.

Fay could be near hurricane strength when it reaches central Cuba on Sunday night, according to the 8 a.m. ET advisory from the National Hurricane Center.

Fay, with maximum sustained winds of near 50 mph (80 km/hr) and higher gusts, was heading west-northwest about 12 mph, forecasters said. It is expected to turn north-northwest by late Monday. The center of the storm was about 100 miles (160 km) from Camaguey, Cuba, at 8 a.m., forecasters said. Fay was expected to be near the southern coast of Cuba later in the day.

The storm is expected to cross the Florida Keys on Monday night, becoming a hurricane before it reaches Florida’s Gulf Coast. However, because hurricane movements are erratic, long-range forecasts can vary. The storm will become a Category 1 hurricane if its winds reach 74 mph.

Residents of western Cuba, Florida and the Florida Keys should monitor Fay’s progress, the hurricane center said. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist pre-emptively declared a state of emergency Saturday, and told reporters he had partially activated the state emergency management office. He urged Floridians to ready themselves for the storm.

Shell Oil said Saturday it was evacuating 200 people from the Gulf of Mexico as Fay approached.

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