MIAMI - Resigned and frustrated Floridians began bracing yesterday for Hurricane Jeanne, which forecasters said should start pounding the state's east coast with whipping wind and rain by late this afternoon.
Ports were closing, and shelters were opening. Sandbags were ready, and curfews set. Hotels filled up, and emergency-response trucks rolled.
The anxiety mounted yesterday as nearly a million coastal residents and mobile-home dwellers from Miami-Dade to Flagler counties were ordered to begin evacuating today to avoid the fourth hurricane to torment the Sunshine State in six weeks.
`A test for our state'
In Tallahassee, Gov. Jeb Bush expressed an exasperation no doubt shared by the state's 16 million residents.
"Sometimes it feels like this is a test of resiliency for our state," the governor said. "Other times I feel like I'm Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. But we're going to get through this."
Last night, hurricane warnings covered nearly all of Florida's east coast as Jeanne barreled westward.
Forecasters are confident the Category 2 storm and its 100 mph winds will make a gradual curve northward, but yesterday they couldn't answer the critical question: When?
"This is just too close to call," Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center said last night. "This is not going to be an easy one."
Just how much - and where - Jeanne will affect the state depends on a ridge of high-pressure hovering over the Mid-Atlantic, which for three days has kept the storm on a beeline for the state's coast.
Computer models forecast the ridge to erode sometime today, and if it does, Jeanne could be pulled more northward.
If that happens and occurs early enough, the storm might stay offshore, coming close enough to pummel the state with wind, rain and surf, but keeping its vicious east side at sea.
A matter of luck
That would be the best outcome for Florida, but not for Georgia or the Carolinas.
"It could turn just before the coast, if we're lucky," said Ed Rappaport, the hurricane center's deputy director. "But if we're lucky, someone else isn't."
If Jeanne follows the hurricane center's official forecast track, the storm would plow into the coastline early tomorrow, in the vicinity of St. Lucie County, not far from where Hurricane Frances struck Sept. 5.
Then it would grind its way north in a shallow arc to the Georgia-Florida border with winds of at least 30 mph.
By early tomorrow, the winds would increase in intensity, sweeping the eye across Brevard, Orange, Seminole and Volusia and Flagler counties.
The storm was expected to produce hurricane-force winds of more 74 mph about 45 miles from its center and tropical-storm-force winds up to 140 miles from its core.
Forecasters predicted rainfall totals of 5 to 10 inches, prompting concerns about already swollen lakes, rivers and streams.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.