WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Powerful winds and drenching rains battered Florida's eastern coastline yesterday as a potent but plodding Hurricane Frances slowed to a maddening crawl, prolonging the agony for millions of residents forced to wait through another night to see what damage the huge storm would deliver.
The 70-mile-wide eye of the storm was not expected to reach land between West Palm Beach and Melbourne until early this morning, but by late yesterday it had already taken a toll on the state: As many as 2 million people were without electricity, and 90 mph winds radiating as far as 75 miles from the center ripped roofs off buildings and downed trees and power lines in some areas.
In the Bahamas, where the storm passed early yesterday, one man was electrocuted, another drowned after he apparently tried to swim to safety and a third was missing and presumed drowned. Much of the damage on the island chain, however, was superficial - the result of a pounding rain rather than fierce winds as Hurricane Frances weakened to a Category 2 storm, with winds receding to 105 mph from a high of 145 mph.
But authorities warned that Florida could still take a major hit. Forecasters said the storm appeared to be gaining strength late yesterday as it passed over warmer waters off the Florida coastline. The storm's later-than-expected arrival also meant that it could coincide with high tide, creating the potential for huge storm surges and widespread flooding.
"This is still a big, unpredictable and very slow storm," Gov. Jeb Bush said at a late-afternoon news briefing in Tallahassee. He warned residents not to falsely assume that the storm was over when its eye, and its attending calm, passed over the area this morning.
Hurricane Frances was so large - roughly the size of Texas - and moving so slowly, at about 5 mph, that it could take four hours for the eye of the hurricane to pass before the rains and winds at the back end of the storm begin, Bush said.
Residents and stranded tourists who have been holed up in shelters and hotels in some cases since Wednesday should "be close to their families, love their children, stay safe ... and know that a tremendous amount of support is on the way," the governor said.
Even before the storm hit, the White House declared a state of emergency yesterday in five coastal counties that were in the direct path of Hurricane Frances, making them eligible for federal aid. The greatest damage in those areas was expected to come from flooding - the National Hurricane Center predicted "torrential rains" that could bring 20 inches of floodwater in some areas.
Of particular concern was the area near Lake Okeechobee, one of the nation's largest lakes, which could see storm surge flooding of 5 feet above normal levels, according to the hurricane center. A hurricane in 1928 caused the lake to overflow and dikes to crumble, killing as many as 2,000 people.
There were some early reports yesterday of houses and buildings collapsing from the prolonged, pounding rains. In Palm Beach County, a nursing home with about 90 patients, many of them suffering from Alzheimer's disease, was abruptly evacuated because of a severely leaking roof, said Don Delucia, spokesman for Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue.
Across Florida's central coast, about 2.8 million residents had been told to move inland, the largest evacuation in state history. An estimated 55,000 people were staying in 281 shelters. The American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency braced for a record post-storm response, with FEMA sending about 4,500 workers to the state.
Hurricane Frances comes three weeks after Hurricane Charley slammed into western Florida from the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 13, leaving 27 people dead and causing more than $7 billion in damages.
After days of rushed preparations, followed by a tedious wait, residents said late yesterday that they wished the latest storm would just hurry up. Hurricane house parties turned into marathon events as people hunkered down with wine and friends to wait out the storm that stalled.
"This sucker is taking forever," said Bonnie Berg, who held a small party for friends at her home in Melbourne, Fla. "I'd go crazy if I wasn't having a party."
Deborah Nicholas hurried home from a shelter in Fort Pierce so she could take a shower. But she fled after a few minutes when the lights started flickering and trees began snapping. She had been sleeping in a deck chair at a high school cafeteria since Wednesday.
"I'm going stir crazy," Nicholas said. "I'm going to be in a straitjacket by Monday. I don't know how much longer I can take it."
People had been instructed to stay inside for more than 24 hours. Many were stuck in shelters, some without power. Delucia, with Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, said he knew residents were getting restless.