Fleeing or defying the looming storm

Most of 2.5 million people in path of Frances jam roads seeking safer place

September 03, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LAKE WORTH, Fla. - In the desolate expanse of Palm Beach County's evacuated areas, a few stubborn homeowners are refusing to leave, insisting that they would rather brave the potentially wrath of Hurricane Frances in their plywood-covered houses.

"My wife and I will get into the bathtub if it's bad enough," said George Piper, a boat builder who was still boarding up his windows last night at dusk.

"I'm probably the only person out here still cutting plywood," Piper said, looking around his deserted neighborhood. "I've been doing it since 6 a.m."

The order to evacuate 2.5 million people in South Florida came yesterday as Hurricane Frances neared with its 145 mph winds, putting the fear of Andrew into most of Florida's residents. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed South Florida, causing more than $26 billion in damage.

"This is going to be Andrew times three," said Diane Adams, who was helping to board up a Sunoco station where she works as a clerk. "This gal is going to hit the whole state of Florida."

Station owner Berkeley Reid tied up his gas pumps with rope, boarded up his store windows, and was headed out of town to see family in Nashville.

"Come back Monday and see if it's blown away," he said as he locked the door to his store.

Reid was evacuated from his home on Sanger Island, about 12 miles north of Lake Worth.

He and other gas station owners said they have little or no gas in their tanks because if the electricity goes down, the pumps won't work anyway.

"I'm not going to spend $20,000 and put gas in the ground and not be able to pump it," Reid said.

Bumper to bumper

Residents and tourists streamed inland in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Traffic backed up for miles on sections of Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the state's east coast, and was heavy on parts of Interstate 4, which crosses the peninsula to connect Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tampa.

Geoff Connors of Fort Pierce sat in a line of about 50 cars slowly merging onto I-95 in Fort Pierce. He had enough cash and clothes to get through about five days, though he wasn't sure where he would end up.

"I figured it was smarter to get out of here now. It was a snap decision," Connors said.

The storm lashed the outlying islands of the Bahamas yesterday. Nassau - home to two-thirds of the Bahamas' residents - was bracing for its worst blow in more than 70 years.

The eye of the storm passed directly over San Salvador, scrubbing the southeastern island with hurricane-force winds and a heavy storm surge. Most residents had fled to shelters.

Officials on satellite phones reported 100-mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge on Mayaguana.

In Florida, most of the people who were told to leave were in South Florida - 300,000 in Palm Beach County, 250,000 in Broward County and 320,000 in Miami-Dade County. All of Miami Beach, with its Art Deco hotels and flashy nightclubs and restaurants, was under an evacuation order.

Labor Day ruined

The storm and the evacuations it forces are certain to spoil Labor Day outings and make a mess of holiday travel across the Southeast.

People flocked to airports, hoping to get out before all flights were grounded. Some trudged through long lines at ticket counters only to find that their flights had been canceled. Hotels and motels inland filled up. Gas stations ran dry.

Florida rescinded tolls on major roads and said lanes on some highways might 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 leave the state's east coast and traffic backed up 30 miles or more.

The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral was completely evacuated for the first time because of the dual threats of high wind and storm surge.

While many businesses in South Florida are closed or near closing, the coming storm means good business for grocery stores, Home Depot and companies that board up windows.

Edson Willis and Reggie Andrew were putting up the last piece of plywood onto a Circle K convenience store when they realized it was an hour past their quitting time.

"I want to get home and do my own house," said Willis, who was boarding up stores all day for his employer, Fox Glass Co.

"Everybody is very nervous about this one," Willis said. "Even my neighbors are asking me to help them with their houses. I tell them I can't. I don't have the time."

The Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this article.

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