MIAMI — Nearly half a million people were ordered to evacuate as Hurricane Frances swirled toward Florida on Wednesday, only weeks after Hurricane Charley struck the state.
Forecasters said the still-strengthening Category 4 storm could hit as soon as Friday night, three weeks after Charley raked Florida's western coast with 145 mph wind, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing 27 people.
"I can't emphasize enough how powerful this is. If there's something out there that's going to weaken it, we haven't seen it," National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said.
Evacuation orders were posted for 300,000 residents in coastal areas of Palm Beach County, and nearly 200,000 were told to leave mobile homes and low-lying areas of Brevard, Martin and Indian River counties, which could be hit by large ocean waves. The evacuation orders were effective this afternoon.
Frances was less than 600 miles east-southeast of southeastern Florida on Wednesday night, heading west-northwest at nearly 14 mph. Residents of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina watched the forecast closely in case Frances took a sharper turn to the north.
The hurricane's forward speed was forecast to decrease over the next 24 hours, meaning its powerful winds and drenching rains could linger over wherever it hits.
Frances is as strong as Charley now, but forecasters said it could become an even stronger Category 5, with winds of 156 mph or higher, before it makes landfall in the United States.