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Violent Weather Lets Loose in the Atlantic

Four are feared dead in Hurricane Fabian, Bermuda's harshest in 50 years. A drenched Florida braces for more flooding as Tropical Storm Henri closes in.

September 06, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

Hurricane Fabian lashed Bermuda late Friday with sustained winds of 120 mph, peeling rooftops and toppling tree limbs, while a tropical storm in Florida had much of the state bracing for heavy rains overnight and the threat of severe flooding.

Four people were missing and feared dead from the hurricane, authorities in Bermuda said Friday night.

Bermuda had largely shut down well before the arrival of Fabian, a Category 3 hurricane that meteorologists listed as the worst to hit the island since at least 1953.

Merchants taped up windows and residents hunkered down in their homes as the eye of the hurricane passed late Friday afternoon. Cruise ships docked there had left early, while those en route changed course to avoid the storm.

"We're encouraging everyone to stay home, find a room without too many windows and ride out the storm," said John Burchall, a spokesman for the Bermuda government.

Police Commissioner Jonathan Smith said Friday night that two police officers and two civilians were missing and feared dead. They were swept into the water when high winds blew their vehicles off a shattered causeway connecting Bermuda's main island to the airport, which was closed by the storm. A search was suspended because of the strong storm surge but was to resume at daybreak, Smith said.

Hospitals reported minor injuries from the hurricane. Many people said they had been hit by flying debris. Some reported falling on slippery streets and sidewalks in the wind.

More than 25,000 homes lost power in the storm. Phone service was down in some areas, and hospitals were relying on generators.

The storm littered the tourism-heavy island chain -- with a total population of about 64,000 -- with debris, making roads impassable and confronting authorities with a major cleanup. Bermuda's version of the National Guard was to be mobilized this morning to help in the cleanup.

The weather was improving early today but stormy seas continued to surround the islands, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The Bermuda Weather Service discontinued hurricane warnings but urged citizens to exercise caution until winds and seas subsided.

The powerful storm was still packing winds of 115 mph as it moved away from the islands and headed north over the open ocean.

Fabian was the worst storm to strike Bermuda, a self-governing British territory about 650 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., since Hurricane Edna struck in 1953 with 115-mph winds, said Eric Blake, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Meteorologists in Bermuda said Fabian was carrying sustained winds of up to 120 mph when it swept over the island chain.

"They're really getting hammered," Blake said Friday afternoon.

Bermuda officials said that the British territory requires new houses to be able to withstand sustained hurricane-force winds and has placed many power and telephone lines underground. They said they hoped the building codes would mitigate damage from the storm.

In Florida, slow-moving Tropical Storm Henri was expected to bring 6 to 12 inches of rain to a state whose rivers were already brimming because of heavy summer rainfall.

"If we get 6 to 12 inches over some of these rivers, it's going to be near-catastrophic," said Ira Brenner, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Tampa office, which covers 15 counties.

All 15 of those counties were under flood watch, as was much of the central portion of the state. A tropical-storm watch was in effect for a broad swath of the state's Gulf Coast

The storm was approaching the shore at about 3 mph and was expected to cross the coast near Crystal River, about 60 miles north of Tampa, today.

"Given the amount of rain that has taken place in the Tampa Bay area, particularly north of Tampa where the storm is going to hit, we're concerned," Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday. "The biggest concern would be the potential for major, major rainfall on top of a very saturated area."

Emergency management officials distributed sandbags to residents and made plans to open shelters, if needed.

Brenda Frazier, an emergency management spokeswoman in coastal Hernando County, north of Tampa, said the principal worry was flooding.

"It's going to be rather difficult because we are already saturated. We have had an awful lot of rain; 5 to 8 [inches] will be on top of what we have now," Frazier said. "We already had some roads closed. Ordinarily it wouldn't be that bad, but because of the situation it's not going to be a good thing."

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Times researcher Rennie Sloan contributed to this report.

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