Monday, September 06, 2004

Weakened Frances slams into Florida

Weakened Frances slams into Florida


FORT PIERCE, Fla. - Hurricane Frances' wind and water whacked swaths of Florida with fire-hose force today, submerging entire roadways and tearing off rooftops before weakening to a tropical storm and crawling inland with heavy rain. More than five million people lost power, and three people were killed.

Over 33 centimetres of rain fell along Florida's central east coast, flooding some areas more than a metre deep, as a weakened Frances edged across the state toward Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico. In its wake, trees and power lines were levelled, broken traffic lights dangled and beachfront roads were littered with coconuts, avocados and tree limbs.

"I was just waiting for the house to blow down," said Diane Wright, who rode out the storm in a mobile home in Fort Pierce.

Hers didn't. But even shelters weren't spared: The roof at a school housing evacuees was partially blown off.

The scope of the enormous storm was evident Sunday as bands of rain and gusty wind extended the length of the state's 690-kilometre east coast from the Keys to Jacksonville and beyond along the Georgia coast. It was expected to move into the panhandle Monday, then into Georgia and Alabama.

The storm was blamed for at least three deaths in Florida, including two people who were killed Saturday when their roof collapsed in Palm Beach County. Another man was killed when his car hit a tree near Gainesville.

Frances razed several mobile homes and made a mess of marinas, throwing dozens of pleasure boats against the shore or on top of each other.

Gov. Jeb Bush and 20 state and federal emergency officials surveyed damage Sunday as they flew from Tallahassee to West Palm Beach, but the governor said it was too early to assess the extent of the devastation.

Officials warned the aftermath could pose even greater risks. ``There are still dangers on our streets where the hurricane passed," Jeb Bush said. "Please be patient."

President George W. Bush talked to his brother Sunday afternoon to assure Floridians that federal resources were in place to help respond, a White House spokesman said.

Some 8,000 members of the National Guard were assigned to recovery efforts. Suspected looters were arrested in Palm Beach, Orange and Indian River counties.

Once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 233 kilometres per hour, Frances slowed and weakened to a Category 2 storm as it neared Florida. Winds receded to a peak of 169 km/h before it made landfall at Sewall's Point, north of Palm Beach, around 1 a.m. EDT.

"We don't know what all of our damage is yet, but we know it could have been a lot worse," Martin County administrator Russ Blackburn said.

Initial reports of destruction did not rival the estimated $7.4 billion US in insured damage caused by hurricane Charley in southwest Florida three weeks ago. Frances' path overlapped with some of the area hit by Charley, which killed 27 people. One risk-assessment company estimated insured losses could range from $2 billion to $5 billion.

By Sunday evening, Frances had been downgraded to a tropical storm, with maximum winds near 105 km/h and its centre about 25 kilometres east of Tampa.

The storm shut down much of Florida on the traditionally busy Labour Day weekend.

At one time, about 2.8 million residents in 40 counties were told to evacuate from coastal areas, barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying areas. The largest evacuation in state history sent 108,000 people to shelters.

Airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Martin County reopened, but those in Orlando and about 10 other cities remained closed. Officials in Miami and Fort Lauderdale told evacuees they could return home. Miami's airport was crowded with tourists whose vacations were ruined or interrupted by Frances.

New evacuations began in four counties in Florida's Panhandle, where Frances is expected to hit Monday after crossing the northeast Gulf of Mexico. The most likely location for landfall was St. George Island, forecasters said.

Northbound Interstate 95 was closed in Palm Beach County because of a washout. Farther north, about two dozen large oak trees obstructed parts of I-95 over an 80-kilometre stretch. Authorities closed the majestic Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay. In Martin County, 630 evacuees at a school were forced to another shelter when part of the roof blew off, flooding 16 rooms.

Heavy rain transformed some neighbourhoods into waterfront property. Roads in Palm Beach County were covered by more than a metre of water. Neighbours waded to each others' homes after being shuttered inside for nearly 24 hours.

"All our trees are down and I have a few windows broken, but I don't know what else is flooded because I can't get anywhere," said Carline Cadet, waving at the water covering the streets around her home.

Police blocked access to the county's barrier islands, including Palm Beach and Singer Island, and enforced a 24-hour curfew. Officials said roads were too dangerous for travel.

Police in the Orlando area said 10 thieves used a stolen car to smash into a store and steal about $10,000 worth of clothing, and two men were arrested as they tried to steal an ATM machine with a chain saw.

Also Sunday, at the peak of the hurricane season, Ivan became the fifth hurricane of the year in the central Atlantic. It was about 1,320 kilometres east-southeast of Barbados with winds near 200 km/h. Under current projections, Puerto Rico and Barbados are in the storm's path. Officials said it was too soon to say whether Ivan would hit the United States.

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