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Frances hits Florida in Panhandle while others start cleanup

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

ST. MARKS, Fla. -- Frances sloshed into the Florida Panhandle on Monday, taking a second swing at a storm-weary state where it already had knocked out power to 6 million people, torn up roofs and boats, and been blamed for at least five deaths.

While Panhandle residents rode out the tropical storm's heavy rain and wind blowing at a sustained 65 mph, shutters started coming down in the south and residents began returning to homes they had evacuated.

The return revealed fresh hardship as motorists waited for gasoline in queues that stretched up to five miles, and others stood in enormous lines to get water, ice and other basic supplies. There was even a long line at a dump in Miami, where 25 cars waited to dispose of storm debris.

"We really hope to get ice and everything else. We don't know what they have in there," said Christine Bland, standing in line with about 1,500 other people at a Wal-Mart in Palm Beach County. Up the coast in Fort Pierce, hundreds of people stood in a line with buckets and ice chests on a sunny, steamy afternoon.

More than 3 million people remained without power Monday night.

President Bush, expected to survey the damage Wednesday, is asking Congress to approve $2 billion to help victims of hurricanes Charley and Frances.

The core of the storm, once a powerful Category 4 hurricane before it slowed somewhat, slammed into the state's Atlantic coast early Sunday. After crossing the state and a corner of the Gulf of Mexico, it made its second Florida landfall at St. Marks, 20 miles south of Tallahassee, early Monday afternoon. At 4 p.m., maximum sustained winds had dropped to near 45 mph.

In Tampa, 105 residents of a retirement home were evacuated in wheelchairs with floodwaters lapping at their knees. The water seeped into the home from a retention pond.

Heather Downs moved into the home two weeks ago after her apartment was badly damaged by Charley. "I'm not scared," said Downs, standing outside in bare feet. "I've been through a lot."

Forecasters said Frances could bring up to 10 inches of rain and a 5- to 10-foot storm surge to the Panhandle. Four coastal counties ordered evacuations.

Frances was moving north-northwest at about 8 mph, forecasters said, and bound for Georgia and Alabama.

"You can tell it's getting very close -- there's lots of rain, lots of wind now," said Penny Bolin, executive director of the Red Cross chapter in Albany, Ga. "What we're concerned most about is flooding -- we're expecting large amounts of rainfall."

At a Florida Turnpike rest stop in West Palm Beach -- one of the few places in the area with gas and power -- a 5-mile line of motorists waited for fuel. "It took a little while, but I'm glad to be here," said Greg McCourt, who waited an hour to get gas for a trip to Georgia.

Airports in Tampa, Orlando, West Palm Beach and Key West reopened. As of midday, more than 73,000 people remained in shelters, down from about 108,000 on Sunday. The largest evacuation in state history had affected 47 of Florida's 67 counties.

"I've gone through all these Florida storms without going to a shelter," 100-year-old Gladys Swezey said after Gov. Jeb Bush paid a visit. "I find this quite disturbing -- to make such a to-do out of a storm. In the old days, we'd just stay home and do what we can to keep the water out."

Cruise ships arrived belatedly at the Port of Miami after staying at sea to avoid the storm and extending their passengers' voyages. The Postal Service played catchup by delivering mail on Labor Day. Some schools made preparation for classes after serving as shelters during the weekend.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was prepared to distribute 1.5 million gallons of water and 1 million meals.

One risk-assessment company estimated insured losses from Frances could range from $2 billion to $10 billion. A state official said damage could have been worse.

"If it's the same all the way across, we're looking at a couple of billion dollars rather than the big numbers we were seeing earlier," state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher said.

There were at least 25 arrests for looting statewide.

Frances had charged into Florida's east coast early Sunday with wind roaring at 115 mph and more than 13 inches of rain, stripping away roofs, smashing boats, eroding away a chunk of I-95 and flooding West Palm Beach streets up to four feet deep.

At Daytona Beach, still recovering from Hurricane Charley three weeks ago, Frances tore roofing off the Peabody Auditorium, where the London Symphony Orchestra appears each year, and destroyed a sign advertising "The World's Most Famous Beach."

The storm's core angled across Florida to enter the gulf north of Tampa, its path crossing some of the area hit by Charley, which killed 27 people in Florida and caused an estimated $7.4 billion in insured damage.

The five deaths blamed on Frances included a grandson and a former son-in-law of Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden, who died in a collision on a rain-slippery highway.


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