Slow but powerful, Hurricane Frances hits Florida’s coast
STUART, Fla. – Hurricane Frances howled ashore at Florida’s east coast early today with sustained winds of 105 mph and pelting rain, knocking out power to 2 million people and forcing Floridians to endure a frightening night amid roaring gales that shredded roofs and uprooted trees.
The National Hurricane Center said the eye of the hurricane officially made landfall near Sewall’s Point, just east of Stuart – about 40 miles north of West Palm Beach – about 1 a.m. EDT.
Transformers popped along streets, sending sparks into darkened skies, as families huddled in shelters, bathrooms and hotel lobbies. The wind-whipped coastal waters resembled a churning hot tub.
Darlene Munson, who was riding out the storm with family members at her restaurant in Melbourne, 65 miles north of Stuart, said the wind and rain outside 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,” Munson said as debris battered the restaurant’s doors and windows.
The storm’s slow-motion assault – Frances crawled toward Florida at just 7 mph – came more than a day later than predicted. The western portion of the hurricane’s eye crept over parts of the east-central Florida coast Saturday night, but its strongest winds were expected to begin hitting early today.
“Those folks are getting pounded, and they’ve got worse to come,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for nearly 300 miles along Florida’s east coast, from Florida City north to Flagler Beach, including Lake Okeechobee.
A continued slow west-northwestward motion was expected to move the entire eye of the hurricane inland by sunrise, the weather service said.
Maximum sustained wind was near 105 mph with higher gusts. There was still a chance of some strengthening before the eastern half of the eye moved inland, the weather service said.
Hurricane-force winds extended up to 85 miles from the center, and tropical storm-force winds, which range from 39 mph to 73 mph, extended up to 200 miles.
Coastal storm surge flooding of 4 to 6 feet above normal tide levels, along with large and dangerous battering waves, were expected near and to the north of Stuart. Storm surge flooding of 5 feet above normal levels was expected in Lake Okeechobee.
Four people were hospitalized in Boynton Beach after breathing carbon monoxide fumes from a generator that was running in a house. No other injuries were immediately reported.
En route, Frances shattered windows, toppled power lines and flooded neighborhoods in the Bahamas, driving thousands from their homes. The Freeport airport was partially submerged in water.
For many Floridians, this would be a night to remember.
Mary Beth and Jack Stiglin, evacuees from nearby Hutchinson Island, sat in their hotel room in Fort Pierce, eating ham and cheese wraps by candlelight as the power lines outside their room sparked and died.
“It’s a little romantic. I brought the roses from our garden because they would have been blown away anyway,” Mary Beth Stiglin said.
Frances’ arrival came three weeks after Hurricane Charley killed 27 people and caused billions of dollars in damage in southwestern Florida.
For some Floridians, the second storm couldn’t arrive soon enough.
“I just want it to be quick. Just get it over with,” said Woodeline Jadis, 20, tired of waiting at a shelter in Orlando.
The storm’s leading edge pounded the Florida coast early Saturday. Frances was so big that virtually the entire state feared damage from wind and water. Forecasters said the storm would dump 8 to 12 inches of rain, with up to 20 inches in some areas.
“This is the time to show some resolve and not be impatient,” Gov. Jeb Bush said. “This is a dangerous, dangerous storm.”
In Washington, D.C., President Bush declared a major disaster in the counties affected by Frances, meaning residents will be eligible for federal aid.
The largest evacuation in state history, with 2.8 million residents ordered inland, sent 70,000 residents and tourists into shelters. The storm shut down much of Florida, including airports and amusement parks, at the start of the usually busy Labor Day weekend.
Some evacuees, frustrated by Frances’ sluggish pace, decided to leave shelters Saturday and return later.
Deborah Nicholas dashed home from a Fort Pierce shelter to take a shower, but stayed only a few minutes when the lights started flickering and trees began popping out of the ground. She has slept in a deck chair at a high school cafeteria since Wednesday.
“I’m going stir-crazy,” Nicholas said. “I’m going to be in a straitjacket by Monday. I don’t know how much longer I can take it. Have mercy.”
Residents could take comfort that Frances weakened as it lingered off the coast. Forecasters downgraded it to a Category 2 hurricane as sustained winds receded to 105 mph, down from 145 mph earlier. But the heavy rain forecast still threatened to cause widespread flooding, and the outer bands of the storm packed plenty of punch.
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.
In Fort Pierce, the storm shredded awnings and blew out business signs. Many downtown streets were crisscrossed with toppled palm trees.
One gust reached 115 mph at Fort Pierce, according to the National Hurricane Center, damaging the mast of a truck measuring the storm’s intensity. Florida Power & Light pulled crews off the streets because of heavy wind, meaning those without power would have to wait until the storm subsided, utility spokesman Bill Swank said.
In Stuart, 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.
Roads, streets and beaches were mostly deserted – the occasional surfer notwithstanding. Roads were littered with palm fronds and other debris. Businesses were shuttered and even gas stations were closed, their empty pumps covered with shrink wrap.
Not everyone stayed home: Two men were charged with looting for trying to break into a Brevard County church.
As the weather worsened, a yacht adrift on the Intercoastal Waterway struggled for more than half an hour in choppy water to anchor in West Palm Beach before tying up to a dock. Other boats bobbed like toys. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescued a man and his cat riding out the storm on a sailboat anchored in Biscayne Bay.
At Palm Beach International Airport, the roof and a door were blown off a hangar.
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