Florida braces for another punch

Hurricane Frances looms just weeks after Charley

September 02, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

An ominously "beautiful" Hurricane Frances churned across the Bahamas toward Florida last night with 140-mph winds -- the latest threat to the U.S. mainland from storms spawned during the busiest August of any recorded Atlantic hurricane season.

A half-million people were ordered to leave threatened counties on the southeastern Florida coastline today, only three weeks after Hurricane Charley raked the state's southwestern coast with 145-mph winds, killing 27 people and wreaking $7.4 billion in damage.

If Frances lands with the same energy as Charley, it would complete the worst double hurricane strike in the United States in at least a century.

Meteorologists say it's an extreme example of increased activity in the hurricane spawning grounds of the Atlantic that began in 1995. The number of major storms swirling out of the tropics has doubled since then, and scientists say the trend could continue for another 15 to 30 years.

Nature certainly appeared to be gathering its forces for a brutal blow yesterday.

`Andrew-strength'

Hurricane-force winds extended about 80 miles from Frances' center --about twice the size of Charley's. Wind and water conditions along the new storm's predicted path are nearly perfect, forecasters said, offering little to weaken Frances's fury before it reaches Florida this weekend.

"It is very likely to maintain its strength all the way in," said Jennifer Pralgo, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It could even strengthen to a Category 5 storm, with devastating winds of 155 mph or more.

"This is Andrew-strength, and Andrew was a lot smaller than this," Pralgo said. Hurricane Andrew crashed ashore in South Florida in August 1992 with Category 5 winds. It was the nation's costliest natural disaster, causing $26.5 billion in damage.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency yesterday, activating the National Guard. In southwestern Florida, residents are worried about thousands of properties that were damaged by Hurricane Charley but remain unrepaired, covered by tarps or open and vulnerable to the new storm. Some streets are still strewn with storm debris.

Hundreds of thousands in the storm's path were told to leave low-lying coastal communities, barrier islands and mobile home parks. Those planning to stay waited in lines yesterday to stock up on water, canned food, batteries and plywood.

The military moved aircraft out of the region, and cruise ships departed for safer waters in the Caribbean.

On radar and satellite images, meanwhile, Frances remained an almost perfectly formed hurricane, a pleasingly symmetrical spiral with a distinct central eye.

"We're all remarking that it's absolutely a beautiful storm," Pralgo said, "until it actually destroys things."

Frances arrives on the shirttails of the busiest August on record for tropical storm formation in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, said Chris Landsea, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

After a quiet June and July, the tropics whipped up eight named August storms. Four became hurricanes, and three (Alex, Charley and Frances) were regarded as "major," with Category 3 winds of 111 mph or more.

Upswing in cycle

Meteorologists have warned for years about increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic and Caribbean. "The last busy period was from 1926 to 1970," Landsea said. "From 1971 to 1994 it was quiet, as far as the number of strong hurricanes. Then, from 1995 onward, with the exception of two years, every season has been very active."

On May 17, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that's what would happen this year, and forecasters still expect 12 to 15 named storms before the season ends Dec. 1. That includes six to eight hurricanes, with as many as four of them classified as "major."

The long-term seasonal average is 9.4 named storms and 5.6 hurricanes, including slightly less than two major ones.

The cause of this hurricane cycle, according to research published by NOAA researcher Stanley B. Goldenberg, is a periodic cycling of sea-surface temperatures and favorable wind conditions. They're summed up in something called the "Atlantic multi-decadal signal."

That signal turned "positive" in 1995. Ocean temperatures in the tropical Atlantic climbed at least 1 degree Fahrenheit above normal, fueling the storms' "heat engines."

Also, wind and pressure patterns over the ocean shifted to produce less wind "shear," or conflict between upper- and lower-level winds where the storms brew.

Frances is an example, Pralgo said. The waters the storm is crossing are very warm, which keeps the storm cooking. Also, she noted "This storm is very round, a nice-looking storm, which tells me it's not getting sheared aloft. There's not a lot of upper-level dynamics trying to rip the tops off the clouds."

As a result, Frances keeps strengthening.

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