Florida braces for onslaught

Storm's slow movement increases chance of floods

East coast, Orlando in likely path

Hurricane Frances

September 04, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COCOA BEACH, Fla. - Even the surfers, known for loving rough seas, had departed this barrier beach town on Florida's east cost yesterday, joining an exodus that left stores closed and roads empty in anticipation of Hurricane Frances.

"I tried to ride it, but the ocean's too wishy-washy," said Johnny David, standing next to his surfboard yesterday morning. "The rip is too hard, so it's like trying to ride a washing machine."

Cocoa Beach is the site of Ron Jon, one of the Florida coast's largest and most famous surf shops. But the shop was closed yesterday, its base ringed with sandbags in anticipation of the storm surge expected to hit as early as this afternoon between West Palm Beach and Melbourne.

Frances' top winds diminished overnight as it pounded the Bahama Islands, from 145 mph to less than 110 mph. But it remained a colossus - twice as large as Andrew, which devastated South Florida a dozen years ago. Even though Frances was more than 150 miles offshore last night, squalls spinning off its leading edge raked the Florida coastline with rain and gusty wind.

The storm's slow pace, about eight miles per hour, meant that it was likely to hover over Florida all day once it moved inland, raising the possibility of widespread and destructive flooding.

Rain and storm surge

Forecasters said 10 to 20 inches of rain could fall on the state, which has vast areas of already soggy swamplands.

Frances could linger so long, meteorologists predicted, that there could be two separate storm surges of five to 10 feet at high tides, causing substantial beach erosion along the state's eastern coast.

"The storm, unlike Charley and others in the past, will be with us for a long, long time," Gov. Jeb Bush told the Associated Press after he declared a state of emergency for all of Florida.

West, then north

The storm track released by the National Weather Service at 5 p.m. yesterday showed the storm moving largely west across central Florida just below Orlando, before turning abruptly north tomorrow afternoon and heading toward the state capital, Tallahassee.

Cocoa Beach, one of many mandatory evacuation areas along the coast, was supposed to be the site of a surf contest this weekend. That, like almost every other planned activity in Florida, is off.

A few miles up the coast, the Kennedy Space Center was closed, its 14,000 workers home after a week of securing three space shuttles and other equipment.

NASA spokeswoman Melissa Mathews said the shuttles are being stored inside large hangars fortified by sandbags. Much of the rest of the equipment is inside the campus' huge vehicle assembly building, which, like the hangars, is designed to withstand hurricane winds, she said.

"We had procedures in place, they've been done, our workers are home, and now, we just have to see what the storm does," Mathews said.

Disney World, Universal Studios Theme Park and Sea World remained open into the early afternoon yesterday but planned to close for the weekend.

A few hardy souls remained on the beach here yesterday, wading into a surf that was churning stronger by the hour.

"Look at how gorgeous it is," said Anne DeAmelio, looking out at the blue sky that still framed Cocoa about 10 a.m. "And now we can say we were part of history."

Boston residents DeAmelio and George Voulalas flew into Orlando on Thursday evening. They were unsure whether to come but, in the end, figured why not.

Not worried

"I'm not as worried as I probably should be," said DeAmelio, who planned to endure the storm at Voulalas' vacation house in Indian River, near where the storm was expected to come ashore with 120-mph winds.

Irene and Dave Ladbrooke, visiting from Plymouth, England, with their daughter and granddaughter, marched giddily through the surf.

"We were the only ones out here yesterday," said Irene Ladbrooke. "We just take things as they come."

The hurricane seems less fearsome when you live on the English coast, where 60- to 70-mph gusts are routine, said Dave Ladbrooke.

"Mind you, are houses are built more to last there," he said.

David, the would-be surfer, drove down from Gainesville earlier in the week to help friends board up homes and businesses.

"I'm probably going to ride it out ... like an idiot," David said, clutching what he said was his second beer of the morning.

His friend, Titusville resident Marika Stadeig, said she had endured enough storms in her hometown of Norfolk, Va., that she wasn't sweating Frances. She spent yesterday morning lounging in a bright red bikini.

"It's like nothing here," she said.

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