Sunday, September 05, 2004

Florida storm Frances hits!!!

Frances tormenting Florida
Slow storm begins assault, with worst to come

Residents urged to remain in shelters, safe rooms


VERO BEACH, Fla. — A stubborn, slow-moving Hurricane Frances began a long-dreaded and extended assault on Florida yesterday.

Packing winds in excess of 160 km/h, the storm pummelled a large swath of the state's eastern coastline. Its leading edge knocked out electricity for about two million people. Wind uprooted trees, peeled off roofs and left coastal waters resembling a churning hot tub. But the storm had not yet resulted in the feared scenario of widespread death and destruction.

Last night, about 500 kilometres of coastline remained under a hurricane warning. Frances is so big that virtually the entire state feared damage from wind and water. And its slow path — Frances crawled toward Florida at just 8 km/h before stalling over warm water — means it could dump a huge quantity of rain, perhaps as much as 50 centimetres in some areas, forecasters said. The heavy rain forecast threatened to cause widespread flooding.

The storm's arrival on the coast came more than a day later than predicted, and its eye wasn't expected to hit east-central Florida until early today.

En route, Frances shattered windows, toppled power lines and flooded neighbourhoods in the Bahamas, driving thousands from their homes. The Freeport airport was partially submerged in water.

Frances' arrival came three weeks after Hurricane Charley killed 27 people and caused billions of dollars in damage in southwestern Florida. Still reeling from that storm, officials warned people to hang tough in shelters and safe rooms.

"This is going to be a very long event," said Nathan McCollum, emergency services co-ordinator for Indian River County. "We do not expect the hurricane-force winds to end until late (this) morning or (this) afternoon."

"This is still a very large hurricane," warned Ed Rappaport of the National Hurricane Center in Miami in an interview with local media.

"It's not nearly as intense, but it's much larger than Charley was."

Frances, downgraded to a Category 2 storm from its previous Category 4 designation, was still packing plenty of punch.

The size of the storm necessitated the largest evacuation in state history, with 2.8 million residents ordered inland and 70,000 residents and tourists sent to shelters. The storm shut down much of Florida, including airports and amusement parks.

Many evacuees feared what they'd find upon their return home.

Jeanne Weyforth, 79, holed up at the Budget Inn on Vero Beach, doubted whether her home would be standing. "I don't give it much hope," she said with resignation.

Many of the evacuees live in mobile homes or manufactured housing.

At least 12,500 similar homes were seriously damaged or destroyed when Charley struck.

With memories of that devastation still fresh, many Florida residents began fleeing on Wednesday, when Frances appeared to be approaching at a more rapid pace.

Tens of thousands of people, many of them retirees, are currently staying in shelters — which were filled to capacity yesterday and had begun to turn people away.

Frances was expected to push across the state as a tropical storm just north of Tampa, weaken to a tropical depression and drench the Panhandle tomorrow before moving into Alabama.

A state of emergency is in effect across Florida.

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