Hurricane Frances weaker but still worrisome to Florida; 2.5 million people told to clear out

Friday, September 3rd 2004, 6:18 am
By: News On 6

MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida residents and tourists fled the Atlantic coast by the thousands Friday as Hurricane Frances _ weakened but still dangerous _ wobbled toward the state.

Winds and waves started picking up along the shore by midday. The storm's core was expected to hit somewhere on the Florida coast on Saturday afternoon or evening, hours later than had been predicted. It would be the state's second pummeling by a major hurricane in three weeks, and an estimated 2.5 million people were told to evacuate.

Moving through the Bahamas on Friday, Frances weakened but remained a strong Category 3 storm, with 115 mph winds at early afternoon, down from 120 mph earlier in the day and 145 mph Thursday.

But forecasters said they couldn't rule out its strengthening again before striking Florida. And they said it still could push ashore waves up to 10 feet high and dump as much as 20 inches of rain, meaning deadly flooding was possible in a state with hundreds of miles of coastline.

Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that he hoped people weren't comforted by the lower wind speed. ``The storm is very unpredictable,'' he warned. ``We still don't know exactly where landfall will be.''

At 2 p.m. EDT, the hurricane was lashing the central and western Bahamas and was centered about 200 miles east-southeast of West Palm Beach. It was moving northwest near 9 mph, and forecasters said the storm's forward speed could slow even further before it makes landfall. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 85 miles from its center.

The delayed arrival allowed more time for preparations but frayed nerves, as well.

``It's killing me. We were ready to go this morning,'' salesman Dan Knier said Friday at a Lowe's home supply store in Stuart. ``I've got some cabin fever, and I'm ready for it to end big time.''

With its imposing size _ a cloud cover about as big as Texas _ and slow movement, Frances had devastating potential even if its winds don't regain their former speed. The slower the storm moves, the longer its winds and rain linger, forecasters said.

Three weeks ago, on Aug. 13, Hurricane Charley struck Florida's southwestern coast and tore across the state. With sustained winds of 145 mph, it caused billions of dollars in damage to homes, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands and killed 27 people.

Two major hurricanes _ defined as having sustained winds of at least 111 mph _ have not struck Florida so close together since 1950.

``I'm petrified,'' said Deena Dacey, who fled her Rockledge home near Cape Canaveral for a hotel room near Tampa's Busch Gardens on the other, leeward side of the state. ``If we can get settled, we might be OK, but I doubt it.''

Doug Eldridge of Stuart, out shopping for a gas can Friday, said he'll wait out the storm at home with his two teenage sons, while his wife, a nurse, will probably have to work.

``The boys will just keep playing video games until the power goes out; after that, break out the board games,'' he said.

In the Bahamas, fearful residents in the biggest cities boarded their homes, then hunkered down inside or fled to shelters.

Frances had battered the nation's sparsely populated southeastern islands Thursday, and by Friday morning, it was toppling trees and littering roadways with debris in Nassau, the capital. An 18-year-old Nassau youth was electrocuted while putting fuel in his family's generator.

For Florida, the hurricane warning covered most of the state's eastern coast, from Florida City, near the state's southern tip, to Flagler Beach, north of Daytona Beach, and a watch was added to Fernandina Beach, at the Georgia line.

Bush estimated that 2.5 million residents were under evacuation orders in 15 Florida counties based on the state's projections of people living in evacuated areas. Individual counties reported at least 1.32 million residents ordered evacuated.

The governor asked his brother, President Bush, to declare Florida a federal disaster area and make storm victims eligible for recovery aid. Federal officials promised they had enough people and supplies in the state to handle two disaster-relief operations at once.

Traffic seemed lighter early Friday than it had a day earlier, when bumper-to-bumper traffic clogged state highways and airports were packed with people trying to leave. On Friday, it was easy to stroll through Miami International Airport, where outgoing flights were canceled, and ticket counters at the major domestic airlines were empty.

Hotels and motels inland filled up, and gas stations ran dry. In Cape Canaveral, someone was desperate enough for gas to break into a garage and siphon half a tank from a car.

Florida rescinded tolls on major roads and said lanes on some highways could be reversed to handle the evacuation traffic. State officials hoped to avoid a repeat of the mess during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when 1.3 million people were told to evacuate the state's east coast and traffic backed up 30 miles or more.

Frances was about twice the size of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that destroyed much of southern Miami-Dade County.

Other Southeastern states were keeping an eye on the storm, as well as dealing with refugees from Florida.

Georgia officials dispatched 22 emergency units to the southern part of the state to help motorists and deal with vehicle breakdowns Friday. Alabama was preparing for heavy rain and wind with the storm's remnants forecast to come through next week.

Meanwhile, the ninth named storm of the season formed early Friday in the far eastern Atlantic. Tropical Storm Ivan had maximum sustained wind of 45 mph and was about 745 miles southwest of the Cape Verde islands. It was moving west at 18 mph.