Nine Florida counties ordered evacuations from low-lying coastal areas and mobile homes that could be devastated by the storm.
Highway tolls were suspended and on the Beeline Expressway in central Florida, lanes were reversed to speed the long lines of traffic fleeing the coast.
In the three most populous Florida counties, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, authorities told 810,000 people to leave.
Frances lashed the southeastern Bahamas with 145mph winds yesterday and threatened to deliver a huge blow to Florida just three weeks after the state’s other coast was hit by Hurricane Charley.
Almost the entire east coast of Florida was under a hurricane warning, meaning hurricane conditions would be expected in the next 24 hours.
“You cannot hope this off, you cannot walk away. It is not time to hope, it is time to act,” Florida Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate said.
Frances carried a potential storm surge of up to 14 feet above normal tides, and was expected to pour 10 to 20 inches of rain on Florida.
“This one has it all,” state meteorologist Ben Nelson said.
Florida schools, courts and government offices closed along the east coast. Residents rushed to secure their homes, snatching plywood, flashlights and bottled water from store shelves. Long lines formed outside gas stations and automatic teller machines ran out of cash.
At least two hospitals and a half-dozen nursing homes were evacuated and the state waived some Medicaid restrictions on prescription refills so patients could stock up on medicine.
With its 145mph winds, Frances is as strong as Hurricane Charley, and is twice the size. Frances was also about twice the size of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that destroyed much of southern Miami-Dade County.
Charley caused $7.4 billion (€6bn) in insured losses, the second-highest hurricane damage toll in US history behind Hurricane Andrew’s $25bn (€20bn) tab in 1992.