Hurricane Frances smothers Florida with wind, heavy rain; 4 million without power

Sunday, September 5th 2004, 9:19 am
By: News On 6

STUART, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Frances pounded Florida with high wind and heavy rain Sunday after it smashed across the state's east coast, knocking out power to 4 million people and forcing residents to withstand a prolonged lashing that shredded roofs and uprooted trees.

Some evacuees had to flee a second time when a school's roof was partially blown off. Some 86,000 people remained in shelters as Gov. Jeb Bush warned them against venturing out to see the damage.

The storm weakened Sunday morning, with maximum sustained winds near 90 mph, making it a Category 1 hurricane, but forecasters warned the storm track would bring the center of the hurricane back over the warm water of the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. They said it was possible Frances would regain intensity by Monday evening.

The eye of the storm blew ashore at Sewall's Point, just east of Stuart, around 1 a.m. Frances was expected to remain over the state for most of the day, dumping 8 to 12 inches of rain, with up to 20 inches in some areas.

``I wish somebody'd get out there and push it _ get it over with,'' said 72-year-old Nedra Smith, who waited out the storm in the lobby of a Palm Bay hotel.

Frances was so big that virtually the entire state feared damage just weeks after Hurricane Charley tore through, killing 27 people and causing billions of dollars in damage. About 230 miles of coastline _ from the Deerfield Beach area northward to Flagler Beach _ remained under a hurricane warning Sunday morning.

Diane Wright, of Fort Pierce, spent the night with her pets in her unshuttered mobile home, which lost only its laundry room.

``I feel like God's mad at me,'' the 61-year-old disabled landscaper said Sunday.

The storm forced the largest evacuation in state history, with 2.8 million residents ordered inland and 86,000 of them in shelters. Miami-Dade County told about 320,000 people they could return home Sunday, but the storm shut down much of Florida, including airports and amusement parks, at the start of the usually busy Labor Day weekend.

President Bush declared a major disaster in the counties affected by Frances, meaning residents will be eligible for federal aid. His brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, asked residents in affected areas not to go outside Sunday until officials say it's OK.

``Sit tight, stay calm and stay in safe shelter,'' he said. ``It has been a long wait. I appreciate that people have been waiting and I hope they will be patient.''

Four people were hospitalized in Boynton Beach after breathing carbon monoxide fumes from a generator that was running in a house. There were reports of injuries in St. Lucie County, but sheriff's spokesman Mark Weinberg said he had no details.

Before lumbering into Florida, Frances shattered windows, toppled power lines and flooded neighborhoods in the Bahamas, forcing thousands from their homes. The Freeport airport was partially submerged in water. At least two deaths in the Bahamas were blamed on the storm.

In Palm Bay, winds pried off pieces of a banquet hall roof, striking some cars in the parking lot. Trees were bent and light posts wobbled in the howling gusts. Further south in Fort Pierce, the storm shredded awnings and blew out business signs. Many downtown streets were crisscrossed with toppled palm trees.

There was up to a foot of water in the road in the county seat of Fort Pierce, flowing up to the top of tires on sport utility vehicles. Downtown, a steel railroad crossing signal was twisted around like a corkscrew, but buildings seemed mostly intact.

In Stuart, where the eye came ashore, traffic lights dangled, and one hung by a single wire. Downed trees blocked at least one residential street, and signposts were bent to the ground. The facade at a flooring store collapsed, as did the roof of a storage shed at a car dealership.

In Melbourne, 65 miles north of Stuart, the wind and rain looked like a giant fire hose going off at full blast.

``I've never seen anything like this, and no one in my family has,'' said Darlene Munson, who was riding out the storm with family members at her Melbourne restaurant.

Roads, streets and beaches were littered with palm fronds and other debris. Businesses were shuttered and even gas stations were closed, their empty pumps covered with shrink wrap.

At 9 a.m., the center of the hurricane was about 35 miles east of Sebring, which is 70 miles southeast of Tampa. The storm was crawling west at 8 mph. Sustained winds were about 90 mph, down from 105 mph when it made landfall.

Florida Power & Light pulled crews off the streets because of heavy wind, meaning the 4 million customers without power would have to wait until the storm subsided, spokesman Bill Swank said. Nearly all of Vero Beach, 30 miles north of Stuart, was blackened, the city's utility said.

In Martin County, where Stuart is located, 630 people taking shelter at a school had to move to another shelter when part of the roof blew off, flooding 16 rooms. More than 300 people were able to remain in the school.

Alex Pantoja was standing with his wife on a Holiday Inn balcony Sunday looking down on their home in a mobile home park in Stuart. An antenna was gently rocking at their house. Fences were down, and several carports and add-on porches were wrecked.

``I feel pretty lucky so far. I've only lost my porch. I can handle that,'' he said.

Many of the thousands of Floridians spending the night in a shelter were growing weary.

``It's just a matter of patience,'' said Bishop G.A. White, 77, pastor of the Fort Pierce Church of the Living God. ``Wait on the Lord, and wait on the weather.''

Forecasters said the slow movement and large eye would mean several hours of calm for some locations after they were battered by the strongest winds.

``I just urge people to be close to their families, love their children, stay safe and stay with them ... and know that help is on the way,'' said Gov. Bush, who hopes to fly to hard-hit areas later Sunday.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Ivan formed Sunday in the central Atlantic. The fifth hurricane of the season was about 1,210 miles east-southeast of the Lesser Antilles with winds of 75 mph.