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Millions in Florida Ordered to Flee Huge Hurricane

Storm as wide as Texas, coming on the heels of Charley, is expected to make landfall Saturday.

September 03, 2004|Chris Gaither and David Colker | Times Staff Writers

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Nearly 2.5 million people were ordered to seek shelter inland in the state's largest evacuation ever as Hurricane Frances, a monstrous storm with sustained winds of 125 mph, set a course to ravage Florida over Labor Day weekend.

If the storm continues along its projected path, Frances will make landfall Saturday along the populous southeast coast, perhaps between West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce, then head through the state north to the Florida Panhandle, Georgia and Alabama.

Frances is threatening just weeks after Hurricane Charley devastated the state's west coast, killing 27 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Frances, which had been as forceful as Charley, weakened late Thursday, although meteorologists said that it could regain strength as it makes its way toward Florida.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Hurricane Frances -- A caption with a photo in Friday's Section A referred to snarled traffic on the 528 Expressway in Cocoa Beach, Fla. It showed traffic outside Cocoa, Fla.

Frances is twice as wide as Charley -- roughly the size of Texas -- with hurricane-force winds stretching 80 miles to either side of its eye. The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning for 300 miles of coastline stretching from Florida City, near Miami, north to Flagler Beach, near Daytona Beach.

Frances is a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step intensity scale, meaning sustained winds are blowing at 111 to 130 mph. The last time two major storms hit the state in succession was 1950, when Hurricane Easy struck Tampa and Hurricane King battered Miami six weeks later. Those storms were smaller than Frances and Charley, which was a Category 4.

"Having two hurricanes this large hitting only three weeks apart is nearly unprecedented," said Michael Coyne, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Fort Worth.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue each declared a state of emergency, which will free state funds and federal relief money.

Florida officials Thursday ordered the complete evacuation of six counties on the Atlantic coast, from Palm Beach north to Brevard County. Mandatory evacuation notices were issued in low-lying areas and mobile home parks in four counties, including Miami-Dade. Similar evacuation of low-lying areas is set to begin today in at least three additional counties, a spokeswoman for the Florida State Emergency Response office said.

A coastal storm surge of 6 to 11 feet above normal tide levels is expected when Frances makes landfall.

The sun beat down Thursday on South Florida, sending temperatures into the 90s, but winds blustered and seas swelled. Traffic was snarled on coastal freeways as people headed inland.

Plastic bags covered gas pumps drained of fuel. Schools closed. Sports teams postponed games. And people lined up for hours in often fruitless hunts for supplies such as water, batteries and flashlights.

James Williams, 48, a landscaper, queued up at 6 a.m. at a Home Depot in Lake Worth, looking for plywood to shutter a client's windows. Four hours later he discovered the plywood was long gone, so he bought the closest thing he could find -- sheets of plasterboard flooring.

At his apartment, Williams said, the landlord hadn't made plans to shutter the windows, so Williams was going to hide in the closet when the storm hit.

"I'm really nervous," he said.

Bill Mason, a 72-year-old retiree from nearby Greenacres, wasn't yet convinced that the storm would reach the area. He bought bolts and 2-by-4s to buttress his garage door, just in case.

If the storm does arrive, he said, "I'll just sleep in the bathroom."

Officials in Palm Beach County warned homeowners to remove anything that might turn into a projectile in the high winds, including coconuts. Candidates from Tuesday's primary elections were asked to collect their placards from lawns.

In Briny Breezes, a Palm Beach County trailer park so expansive that it has its own ZIP Code, Cheryl Bond hung out the yellow "Vacated" sign officials require during mandatory evacuations. But she hadn't quite finished packing the Coachman mobile home where she has lived for the last year.

When asked about the possibility of losing her home, Bond replied: "I have faith in the good Lord."

About seven miles to the north, Hartley Peavey directed a small crew to remove the remaining leather furniture and artwork from his oceanfront mansion. The musical-instrument mogul, whose neighbors include boxing promoter Don King and musician Yanni, gazed out the window at the rising surf, then pressed a button that slid heavy aluminum storm shutters into place.

"We just think we can outdo Mother Nature," he said, standing in his sunken living room. "This will be a tidal pool."

At the Hilton Palm Beach Oceanfront, maintenance crews cleared the outdoor Flip Flop's bar. They wheeled away carts of liquor bottles, unbolted televisions from their ceiling mounts and stacked wicker furniture in the lobby.

"Get everything from the outside in," said general manager Mike Wurster, who then sent most of his staff away to prepare their homes.

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