Frances crawls toward Florida, rattling the nerves of millions

Saturday, September 4, 2004

STUART, Fla. -- Hurricane Frances lost some steam and hesitated off the Florida coast Friday, prolonging the anxiety among the millions evacuated and raising fears of a slow, ruinous drenching over the Labor Day weekend.

Downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane, the storm was expected to come ashore with up to 20 inches of rain as early as this afternoon, nearly a day later than earlier predictions.

For the 2.5 million residents told to clear out -- the biggest evacuation in Florida history -- and the millions of others who remained at home, Frances' tardy arrival meant yet another day of waiting and worrying.

"It's all the anticipation that really gets to you," said Frank McKnight of Wellington, who waited four hours at a hardware store to buy plywood. "I just wish it would get here, and we could get it all over with. I want to know now -- am I going to have a house left or not?"

A hurricane warning remained in effect for Florida's eastern coast, starting about 30 miles north of Daytona Beach and extending almost to the state's southern tip. Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for all of Florida.

Late Friday, gusty winds began to buffet the coast, and utilities reported as many as 170,000 customers lost power at one point.

As Frances pounded the Bahamas, its top wind fell to 105 mph from 145 mph a day earlier. And its march toward Florida slowed to about 6 mph. The storm's lumbering pace and monstrous size -- twice as big as devastating Hurricane Andrew in 1992 -- mean Frances could spend hours wringing itself out over Florida, causing disastrous flooding.

"The storm, unlike Charley and others in the past, will be with us for a long, long time," Bush said.

Frances might remain over Florida for two cycles of high tide, meaning two rounds of storm surges expected to be 5 to 10 feet.

"This storm is bringing us everything," said Craig Fugate, Florida's top emergency management official. "It's going to bring storm surge, it's going to bring hurricane-force winds for a sustained period of time, it's going to bring torrential rainfall, it's going to bring tornadoes."

Wind gusts in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach had reached 38 mph Friday afternoon. Palm fronds bent in the wind as waves slammed into the beaches. A gust peeled half the roof off a mobile home in Davie, but no one was hurt.

In Miami, which was expected to escape the worst of Frances, winds at the leading edge toppled trees and caused scattered power outages.

Among those evacuated were about 3,000 state inmates and approximately 500 patients at more than a dozen hospitals. When 12 shelters reached capacity in Volusia County, officials sent new evacuees elsewhere and opened three new shelters.

In the Bahamas

The hurricane battered the main tourist hub in the Bahamas on Friday, unleashing powerful winds that ripped apart roofs, downed trees and shattered windows in high-rises. The storm's violence drove thousands to flee and left one man electrocuted.

Streets were almost deserted in tourist center of Nassau, the capital on New Providence Island, which is home to more than two-thirds of the island nation's 300,000 people.

Fallen trees, debris and downed satellite dishes littered roads and power was knocked out in many parts of the city. At least three boats were destroyed. There were scattered reports of looting, police said, including one man who broke into a Texaco gas station and another who was arrested for stealing appliances.

The hurricane was expected to reach Freeport, the second but smaller commercial center early today. Street signs were already blowing off poles and palms were bending in the strong gusts. Officials urged all residents to stay inside.

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

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