STUART, Fla. – Hurricane Jeanne sent wind and huge waves crashing ashore as it slammed into storm-weary Florida late Saturday, forcing thousands into shelters and tearing part of the roof from a hospital. The storm made landfall just weeks after Frances ravaged the same stretch of coast, and hurled debris only recently cleared from earlier hurricanes.
It was the state’s fourth hurricane of the season – an ordeal no state has faced since Texas in 1886.
About 2 million people, from near the state’s southern tip to the Georgia border, were urged to evacuate as Jeanne’s sustained wind strengthened to 120 mph. The Category 3 storm came ashore on the state’s central Atlantic coast and was expected to turn to the north.
“Yesterday I was hoping we wouldn’t lose power again,” said Lynn Tarrington, who was leaving her Lake Worth home near the water early Saturday. “Now I’m hoping I have a house left when I come back.”
The storm made landfall just before midnight near the southern tip of Hutchinson Island about five miles southeast of Stuart, where palm fronds whipped amid waves of horizontal rain. Debris flew and crashed through deserted streets, making a steady roar.
A hospital lost part of its roof, allowing water to leak into the building, said Tom McNicholas, an emergency management spokesman in Martin County. Dozens of patients at Martin Memorial Hospital North in Stuart were moved to other floors, but no injuries were reported.
Waves of 24 feet were reported ahead of Jeanne and were moving toward the coast, where 6-foot storm surges were expected. Powerful swells knocked pieces of mobile homes out to sea on the central coast.
Earlier, Jeanne tore across the Bahamas, leaving some neighborhoods submerged under 5 feet of water. No deaths or serious injuries were reported there, but the storm was earlier blamed for more than 1,500 deaths in floods in Haiti.
Jeanne struck in the same place where Hurricane Frances came ashore three weeks ago, leaving behind piles of debris that officials feared would turn into deadly, home-destroying missiles in Jeanne’s wind.
“I really can’t believe it’s happening all over again – and right in the same place,” said Charity Brown, who moved to West Palm Beach from Chicago three months ago with her children, ages 5 and 3. They hid in a closet as Frances tore the roof off their apartment. That hole is now covered by a tarp, so the family took shelter Saturday at an elementary school that was filling with evacuees.
“I’m going to get out of (Florida). It’s scary. It’s crazy.”
Jeanne follows Charley, which struck Aug. 13 and devastated southwest Florida; Frances, which struck Labor Day weekend; and Ivan, which blasted the western Panhandle when it made landfall in nearby Alabama on Sept. 16. The storms caused billions of dollars in combined damage and killed at least 70 people in Florida alone.
Gov. Jeb Bush warned Floridians not to let storm fatigue get the best of them, “even though we’re weary and even though this is a painful process.”
“They must treat this hurricane as if it’s the only hurricane they’ve ever been through,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
“This has the potential to cause loss of life.”