VERO BEACH, Fla. — The outer bands of Hurricane Frances, a haggard but colossal storm, began lashing eastern Florida's deserted beach towns Friday night. The full force of the storm is expected to strike today, bringing furious winds and more than a foot of rain to a beleaguered state that is still digging out from the last hurricane.
The strength and track of the last storm, Hurricane Charley, caught hundreds of thousands of Floridians by surprise three weeks ago. Frances is three times Charley's size, and residents took no chances this time.
More than 2.5 million people cleared out of the path of the storm, causing a massive bottleneck Friday in northern Florida and southern Georgia. The evacuation bordered on chaos in some areas, with gas shortages and traffic jams so bad that parents were seen holding their toddlers out car windows to urinate on the road. Hotels were booked as far away as Atlanta, more than 500 miles from the likely strike zone here.
"We had 'Hurricane 101' three weeks ago," said Dale Brill, a vice president of Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency. "If my mother tells me not to touch the stove and I do it anyway, the second time I'm going to pay attention."
Frances settled over the Bahamas on Friday, pounding the islands with as much as 20 inches of rain. In Nassau, the hurricane knocked out power, shattered windows, dislodged roofs and uprooted trees. Heavy surf destroyed boats. Frances claimed her first victim -- a teenager electrocuted while refueling his family's generator.
Though the storm slowed, a hurricane warning remained in effect along Florida's populous eastern coast. By 8 p.m., Frances' sustained winds had died down from about 145 mph to about 105 mph, making it a Category 2 storm on the five-step intensity scale. But Frances is still a powerful storm, and state officials expect it to strengthen as it passes today over the 88-degree waters of the Gulf Stream, which hugs the coast of Florida.
The enormous weather system, plodding northwest at 4 mph, could cover the width of Florida and linger over the state for more than 24 hours -- and at least two high-tide cycles.
It could produce as much as 20 inches of rain in some places and a coastal storm surge that could be five feet higher than normal levels. Though people typically fixate on the wind that batters the coast during a hurricane, the rain that follows could be far more destructive this time, officials said.
Don Daniels, emergency management coordinator for St. Lucie County, Fla., north of West Palm Beach and home to 200,000 people, said a heavy afternoon downpour is often enough to flood the county.
"We are a swamp to begin with," Daniels said. "If we get 10 to 15 inches of rain, a lot of areas of Florida are going to be under water."
The storm is expected to make landfall this afternoon or evening near Vero Beach, best known in Southern California as the spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The rains could decimate crops. Large agricultural areas -- including the bulk of the state's citrus industry, 20% of which was destroyed by Charley -- lie not far from the coast here.
"The wind would just wipe out the crop, but the rain could loosen the ground and then the wind would come along and blow over the trees," said Julius Pflum, who runs a small citrus and star fruit orchard outside Palm City, south of Vero Beach near the city of Stuart. "Then I lose everything."
North and west of Pflum's orchard and the rest of the strike zone, hundreds of thousands of people attempted to flee the storm. Hotels were booked throughout northern Florida and southern Georgia. Many shelters were full and were turning people away. Refugees without a place to stay were sleeping in hotel lobbies, in parking lots, on church pews and even at campsites.
"This is the largest mass exodus I have ever seen," said Myrna Ballard, president of the Chamber of Commerce in Valdosta, Ga., where all 3,500 hotel rooms were booked.
At gas stations that still had fuel, some lines were more than three miles long. Cars that had run out of gas were lined up on the shoulder of Interstate 75 in southern Georgia, their exhausted and exasperated drivers still inside. Some people reported running into stores to buy supplies, only to find that the gas had been siphoned from their cars while they were inside.
"It's very intense, the sheer number of people leaving Florida," said Larry Hanson, city manager of Valdosta, Ga. "We're seeing people arrive here ... with a sense of desperation. Even the emergency lanes are filled with people just sitting there."
Those who secured a hotel room were relieved to be out of Frances' path.