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Frances Downgraded, but Floridians Still Bracing for Worst

Friday, 03 September 2004 12:00 AM

Early Friday, streets in Port St. Lucie were quiet, with almost all businesses boarded up. A trickle of people went into a Publix supermarket. There was a light breeze as the sun rose. Frances had weakened Friday into a strong Category 3 storm packing 120 mph winds and the potential to push ashore waves up to 14 feet high.

Its top sustained winds were down from about 145 mph on Thursday, but forecasters said the weakening could be fluctuation typical with large storms and Frances could regain its former strength. If it did, it could be the worst storm to hit the state since Andrew in 1992.

"I'm petrified," said Deena Dacey, who fled her Rockledge home near Cape Canaveral for a hotel room near Tampa's Busch Gardens on the other, leeward side of the state. "If we can get settled, we might be OK, but I doubt it."

At 8 a.m. EDT, the hurricane, with wind still at 120 mph, was centered in the Bahamas, some 260 miles east-southeast of the lower Florida east coast and was moving west-northwest near 9 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 85 miles from its center.

"I hope people don't take comfort in the fact that" Frances has weakened, Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday. "The storm is very unpredictable. ... We still don't know exactly where landfall will be."

In the Bahamas, fearful residents of the nation's biggest cities boarded their homes and hunkered down inside or fled to shelters to ride out the storm. It had battered the nation's sparsely populated southeastern islands on Thursday. Friday morning, it was toppling trees and littering roadways with debris in Nassau, the capital.

Frances' landfall in Florida would represent the first time since 1950 that two major storms - defined as ones with wind of at least 111 mph - have hit Florida so close together. It comes on the heels of Hurricane Charley, which hit on Aug. 13 with 145 mph wind and inflicted billions of dollars in damage to homes, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands and causing 27 deaths as it crossed from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic.

With its imposing size - a cloud cover about as big as the state of Texas - and slow movement, Frances had the potential to ravage the state even if its winds don't regain the 145 mph speed. Forecasters said the slower the storm moves across the ocean, the longer its winds and rain could linger, increasing the possibility of serious damage.

"The good news is for the procrastinators out there, that buys you a little more time, so take advantage of it," said Jaime Rhome, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

But, he warned, a slow moving storm like this could bring 10 to 20 inches of rain.

The hurricane warning covered most of the state's eastern coast, from Florida City, near the state's southern tip, to Flagler Beach, north of Daytona Beach. Forecasters could not say with certainty where Frances would come ashore, just that the core would strike late Saturday.

About 14.6 million of Florida's 17 million people live in the areas under hurricane watches and warnings.

Bush estimated 2.5 million residents were under evacuation orders in 15 Florida counties based on the state's projections of people living in evacuated areas. Individual counties reported at least 1.32 million residents ordered evacuated.

The governor asked his brother, President Bush, to declare Florida a federal disaster area and make storm victims eligible for recovery aid. Federal officials promised they had enough people and supplies in the state to handle two disaster-relief operations at once.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic clogged state highways, leaving a stream of lights into the evening. Traffic backed up for miles on sections of Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the state's east coast, and was heavy along Interstate 4, which connects Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tampa in central Florida.

"I've got half my house in my car," said Doris Johnson, a retiree who waited outside a shelter with her husband, hauling a pile of blankets, pillows, and water. "I just want it over with, and hope and pray no one gets hurt."

The storm and the evacuations it forced were spoiling Labor Day trips and disrupting holiday travel across the Southeast.

In Melbourne, the 300-room beachfront Holiday Inn Beach Resort had been fully booked until guest started checking out Thursday under an evacuation order. General manager Tim Michaud estimated at least $100,000 in lost revenue.

"That's just rooms," Michaud said. "We're also losing functions for the weekend."

Airports were packed with people hoping to depart before all flights were grounded. Hotels and motels inland filled up, and gas stations ran dry.

Florida rescinded tolls on major roads and said lanes on some highways could be reversed to handle the evacuation traffic. State officials hoped to avoid a repeat of the mess during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when 1.3 million people were told to evacuate the state's east coast and traffic backed up 30 miles or more.

Frances was about twice the size of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that destroyed much of southern Miami-Dade County. The last time two major storms hit Florida so close together was 54 years ago, when Hurricane Easy hit the Tampa area and Hurricane King struck Miami about six weeks later. Neither storm was as powerful as Charley was or Frances could be - a scary thought for many Floridians.

"We've took enough clothes for three days," said Revonda Barrs, 44, of Vero Beach, who stopped at a Port St. Lucie gas station. "We boarded our dog and we basically left all our other possessions in the hands of God."

Other Southeastern states were keeping an eye on the storm, as well as dealing with refugees from Florida. Georgia officials expected traffic to worsen throughout the day Friday and dispatched 22 emergency units to the southern part of the state to help motorists and deal with vehicle breakdowns. Alabama was preparing for heavy rain and wind with the storm's remnants forecast to come through next week.

Meanwhile, the ninth named storm of the season formed early Friday in the far eastern Atlantic. Tropical Storm Ivan was located about 610 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands and had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph

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Early Friday, streets in Port St. Lucie were quiet, with almost all businesses boarded up. A trickle of people went into a Publix supermarket. There was a light breeze as the sun rose. Frances had weakened Friday into a strong Category 3 storm packing 120 mph...
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Friday, 03 September 2004 12:00 AM
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