Tropical Storm Frances

Lumbering giant batters Fla.

Thankful for safety amid chaos

The Damage

September 06, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SEBASTIAN, Fla. - The cactus that had once towered 30 feet over Wayne Copley's yard now stood no taller than its owner yesterday afternoon. Mary Ann Copley's favorite live oak tree was toppled on its side. And the carport, well, it lay across the roof of the Copleys' mobile home in this town on Florida's east coast.

Like thousands of coastal property owners, the Copleys' lives and home were thrown into chaos when Hurricane Frances' northern eye wall ripped through late Saturday night and yesterday morning.

"It makes you feel kind of sick to your stomach," Wayne Copley said as he stared at the home he and his wife purchased four years ago. "But at least we're all safe."

Such scenes of wreckage littered this part of the Florida coast, which until this weekend had not experienced a violent hurricane in decades.

In Cocoa, just south of the Kennedy Space Center, Frances strafed waterfront streets and parks yesterday morning. The Indian River, normally placid, surged toward the town's sea wall in 6- and 8-foot swells. Water engulfed a gazebo at the edge of Cocoa Riverfront Park, and plumes of foam vaulted onto the mainland.

Despite the wild scene, curious residents drove to the edge of the river and peered out their windows or walked briefly along the sea wall. Some braved a bridge to Merritt Island.

A few miles down the coast on Route 1, the tops of highway lights were snapped off and dangling over the roadway. The twisted remnants of gas stations lined roads. A catamaran had blown from Indian Lake across Route 1 and into a nest of power lines, where its mast dangled. The facade of a children's play center called Fun Attic had caved in. Only a few small sections of the coast had power.

As the back end of the storm whipped onto the coast through the morning, few people other than police were on the roads.

But Palm Shores residents Kirra Shepard and Steve Miller were walking their dogs, Penny and Toby. The people and the dogs found themselves blown off balance as they staggered across Route 1 to a half-flooded, wind-battered park.

"We just had to come out and see the destruction," Miller said.

About noon, Melbourne residents creeped out to observe some of the worst wind damage inflicted anywhere. Beyond dangling over roads, some Melbourne traffic lights had been ripped away entirely.

To the south in Vero Beach, coastal flooding, fueled by the storm surge and steady rain, appeared to be the chief enemy. Several feet of water covered a shopping center parking lot, and residents waded through thigh-deep water to check their condominiums on the banks of Indian River.

Eric Perez steered a kayak through the parking lot at First Presbyterian Church, which was flooded with 4 feet of water.

"I couldn't get off my street, so I decided I'd kayak," Perez said. "I had to get out."

Police said the barrier island across Indian River was flooded out.

At the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training complex in Vero Beach, fallen palm trees littered the edge of the pristine playing fields, but buildings appeared largely unharmed.

The Copleys and their neighbors were not so lucky. Their mobile home complex had suffered some of the worst damage observed yesterday. Slabs of aluminum siding flapped like laundry on a line. Sun porches sat in heaps, some pushed against neighboring houses. A few homes appeared gutted, furniture and toys thrown every which way. Massive clumps of fallen trees blocked streets and leaned against roofs.

By 3 p.m. yesterday, police were keeping away everyone but residents, calling the stretch a disaster area.

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