Hurricane Frances tears through Bahamas unleashing flooding and heading for Florida

Saturday, September 4th 2004, 11:50 am
By: News On 6

FREEPORT, Bahamas (AP) _ Hurricane Frances ripped apart roofs, shattered windows and flooded neighborhoods as it raged through the Bahamas on Saturday, driving thousands from their homes before beginning a slow march toward the east coast of Florida. At least one man was electrocuted in the storm.

Frances appeared to be weakening, with forecasters downgrading it to a Category 2 hurricane as its sustained winds dipped to 105 mph. But because of its slow movement, at just 5 mph, it could strengthen again before reaching Florida, expected late Saturday or early Sunday.

The slower-than-expected movement meant a long ordeal for Bahamians. Roaring winds blew down trees and toppled power lines, knocking out electricity. Buildings trembled, palms bent in violent gusts and street signs flew off poles.

Surging seawater flooded at least three neighborhoods in the Freeport area on Grand Bahama Island, emergency administrator Alexander E. Williams said. ``We're hearing reports of flooding all over. We're trying to move people to safety,'' he said.

The Freeport airport was partially submerged in water, which in some places, reached as high as the sign posts.

Sharon Carey, a 43-year-old waitress, said she awoke Saturday morning with water knee-deep in her house as police going through the neighborhood banged on the door. The family grabbed passports, birth certificates and other documents and waded outside, where they said dozens of neighbors were evacuating holding whatever belongings they could salvage.

``Everybody was starting to cry because we were scared,'' said Carey's 10-year-old daughter, Comerneich Williams. ``It was terrible.''

The family drove to a hotel seeking shelter, then left when told it was full. They said they didn't know where they would go.

Roaring winds blew down trees and toppled power lines, knocking out electricity. Buildings trembled, palms bent in violent gusts and street signs flew off poles. The winds decreased a bit Saturday morning as the eye came very near Freeport. Forecasters warned of more heavy winds

It wasn't immediately clear how many were evacuated from flooded neighborhoods. ``We're in the middle of our rescue operation. We're trying to save lives,'' police Superintendent Basil Rahming said.

Authorities had urged those in low-lying areas to evacuate Friday, but some decided to stay put.

About 1,100 people on Grand Bahama Island rode out the storm in shelters set up in churches and schools, said Williams, the emergency administrator. Similar shelters were open on other islands, and many Bahamians left vulnerable homes to move in with relatives.

``I'm trying to save myself. I'm scared,'' said Elianise Jean, a 40-year-old Haitian immigrant who came with her six children to a shelter in a church outside Freeport.

Streets were largely deserted Friday as people rode out the storm indoors in the capital of Nassau, which is home to about two-thirds of the archipelago's 300,000 people.

Fallen trees, debris and downed satellite dishes littered roads in Nassau. There were scattered reports of looting, police said, including one man who broke into a gas station and another who tried to steal appliances from a store after winds ripped off part of its roof.

Tourists at the 2,300-room Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, outside Nassau, were moved into a conference room as a precaution.

In Nassau, 18-year-old Kenrad Delaney was electrocuted Friday while filling a generator with diesel. The family heard a scream and found him on the floor. He died after being taken to the hospital, police said.

Freeport, the country's second largest commercial center, has fewer high-rises than Nassau and its building are generally better built. However, when Hurricane Floyd blew through in 1999, it flooded neighborhoods, left the Grand Bahama airport underwater and closed hotels.

The Freeport weather office at Grand Bahama airport was closed due to flooding.

Nassau's Doctors Hospital treated about 40 people who suffered minor injuries during preparations for Frances, said Charles Sealy, vice president of operations. As Frances passed, patients and staff played board games and sang on a karaoke machine, he said.

At 11 a.m., the hurricane's eye was very near Freeport and about 80 miles east of West Palm Beach, Fla. It was moving between the west-northwest and northwest at 5 mph.

A hurricane warning was up for most of Florida's east coast, stretching more than 300 miles. Hurricane watches and tropical storm warnings were in effect for other areas. About 2.5 million residents were told to clear out _ the biggest evacuation request in the state's history.

Forecasters said the brunt of the hurricane could hit Florida late Saturday or early Sunday, about three weeks after Hurricane Charley struck with 145 mph winds, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing 27 people.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard was searching for a Fort Lauderdale-bound pleasure boat that made a distress call 12 miles west of Bimini in the Bahamas. Three people were reported aboard when the boat ran into 9-foot swells.