Hurricane Frances pounded Florida with high wind and heavy rain today after it smashed across the state’s east coast, knocking out power to four million people, shredding roofs and uprooting trees.
Some evacuees had to flee a second time when a school’s roof was partially blown off. Some 86,000 people remained in shelters as Governor Jeb Bush warned them against venturing out to see the damage until officials give the all clear.
Before lumbering into Florida, Frances shattered windows, toppled power lines and flooded neighbourhoods in the Bahamas, forcing thousands from their homes. The Freeport airport was partially submerged in water. At least two deaths in the Bahamas were blamed on the storm.
The storm weakened this morning, with maximum sustained wind near 90 mph, making it a Category 1 hurricane, but forecasters warned that its path would take the centre of the hurricane over the warm water of the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. They said it was possible Frances would regain intensity by tomorrow night.
The eye of the storm blew ashore at Sewall’s Point, just east of Stuart, around 0500 GMT, and by 1500 GMT it was centred about 80 miles southeast of Tampa. Frances was expected to remain over the state for most of the day, dumping up to 20 ins of rain in some areas.
Frances was so big that virtually the entire state feared damage just weeks after Hurricane Charley tore through, killing 27 people and causing billions of dollars in damage. About 230 miles of coastline – from the Deerfield Beach area northward to Flagler Beach – remained under a hurricane warning today. A similar-sized part of the Panhandle from the mouth of the Suwannee River to Destin on the Gulf of Mexico were also under the warning.
The storm forced the largest evacuation in state history, with 2.8 million residents ordered inland and 86,000 of them in shelters. Miami-Dade County told about 320,000 people they could return home today, but the storm had shut down much of Florida, including airports and amusement parks, at the start of the usually busy Labour Day holiday weekend. Airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale reopened this morning, but Orlando remained closed.
President George W Bush declared a major disaster in the counties affected by Frances, meaning residents will be eligible for federal aid.
“It’s just going to be a complete mess out there once she finally moves out,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown.
Florida Power & Light pulled crews off the streets because of the wind, leaving four million customers without power, spokesman Bill Swank said. Nearly all of Vero Beach, 30 miles north of Stuart, was blackened, the city’s utility said.
In Martin County, where Stuart is located, 630 people taking shelter at a school had to move to another shelter when part of the roof blew off, flooding 16 rooms. More than 300 people were able to remain in the school.
As far north as New Jersey, swimmers were warned of rip currents as Frances mixed with a high pressure system moving in from Canada during the weekend.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Ivan formed today in the central Atlantic. The fifth hurricane of the season was about 2,600 miles east-southeast of Miami with wind of 75 mph.