Tropical Storm Frances

Lumbering giant batters Fla.

5 million people lose electricity

`Streets are not safe'

State's panhandle likely next target

September 06, 2004|By Gail Gibson Childs Walker and Allison Klein | Gail Gibson Childs Walker and Allison Klein,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Hurricane Frances left few parts of Florida untouched yesterday as its slow, cruel crawl across the peninsula left behind flooded roadways, downed power lines, uprooted trees and debris-strewn beaches. As many as 5 million people lost power, and the state's panhandle region braced to take its hit from the storm today.

After pummeling parts of Florida's eastern coastline with rain for as long as 30 hours, the storm weakened as it crept west, with winds slowing to about 70 mph. By early evening, Frances was downgraded to a tropical storm as it approached Tampa en route to the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm was expected to strengthen over the gulf, and forecasters said it could regain hurricane strength before hitting land again - probably near St. George Island, a narrow barrier island guarding the mainland city of Apalachicola.

In spite of the relentless battering of wind and water that began early Saturday, Florida appeared to have been spared the level of destruction caused three weeks ago by Hurricane Charley, which killed 27 people and caused losses covered by insurance estimated at $7 billion.

Unlike Charley, a Category 4 storm with winds as high as 145 mph, Frances was a Category 2, with winds of 105 mph when its eye came ashore about 1 a.m. near Sewalls Point, north of Palm Beach.

Gov. Jeb Bush said residents did not ignore the lessons of the earlier storm. About 2.8 million people moved inland, the largest evacuation in state history. More than 100,000 people went to shelters, and most stayed put, as Hurricane Frances lumbered slowly to shore.

"Hurricane amnesia - we don't have that problem anymore," Bush said.

Two storm-related deaths were reported in Florida in addition to two earlier deaths when Hurricane Frances passed over the Bahamas.

Authorities said one man was killed when his car hit a tree near Gainesville. In Boca Raton, a man was killed and a woman was taken to an area hospital after a sport utility vehicle overturned on the Florida Turnpike, police said.

Residents emerge

Yesterday, officials warned people to stay indoors for another day, but many began venturing out to inspect the damage up and down Florida's Atlantic coastline.

All gas stations and most shopping centers were closed, with the exception of a few convenience stores that opened despite the widespread power outages.

Stores that did open their doors were easily spotted by the lines of customers snaking around the block.

At the EZ Pick Food on Military Trail in Palm Beach, 50 people waited to buy food and drinks.

Joyce Dale walked out empty-handed after trying to buy ice to preserve milk for her infant child. Steve Simpson said he came to the store looking for milk, canned goods and an escape from the damage at his home.

"I have somebody's carport on top of my mobile home," Simpson said. "I can't even get inside."

Bush and a team of state and federal emergency officials flew from the state capital of Tallahassee to West Palm Beach to survey the storm damage, but said it was too early to assess the destruction.

In a stop at Palm Beach County's Emergency Operations Center, however, the governor promised quick relief in spite of the toll of the back-to-back storms. "We've had an incredible three weeks," Bush said. "If you planned it, no one would have believed it - two storms in three weeks."

The White House said yesterday that President Bush had spoken by telephone with his brother to assure him that federal resources would be available to help with the recovery effort.

A disaster declaration was issued for the state even before the storm had reached land. While not as intense as the swift-moving Hurricane Charley, Hurricane Frances was far larger, with an eye estimated to be 60 miles across when it reached land.

The storm's size, along with its slow movement, meant much of the state was hit by its persistent, pounding rains. The storm's effects - higher surf and strong winds - could be felt as far north as the New Jersey shore and as far south as Key West.

Forecasters said more than 13 inches of rain fell along part of the state's eastern coastline.

On one section of Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County, the storm blew away a section of the right shoulder and lane, leaving a large sinkhole. And parts of the highway were shut down as Florida Highway Patrol officers cleared debris from the road, Lt. Pat Santangelo said.

In Palm Beach County, tropical force winds were still blowing late yesterday, roads were flooded and palm fronds littered the streets.

Nearly 80 percent of the county was without power. In Lake Worth, an eight-story building in a retirement community was evacuated early yesterday evening because the sides of the building started to come apart.

`Dangerous out there'

"If you have a neighbor that needs a little bit of help, that's as far as you should go," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons said. "The streets are not safe. Every single traffic light is down. It is dangerous out there."

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