FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Packing furious winds, Hurricane Frances began its siege of a terrified Florida on Saturday, ripping roofs off homes, uprooting trees, closing hospitals and cutting off electricity to about 1.2 million people.
By 11 p.m. EDT, the strongest part of the storm, just ahead of the eye, had pounded St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties with torrential rain and winds in excess of 105 mph.
The massive storm system had vexed residents for days as it crawled toward the state's Atlantic Coast.
Just before midnight, James Coyle of Jensen Beach in Martin County, near where the eye of the storm was expected to come ashore, sat in his pickup truck and marveled over the sheer power being loosed. "It's really ripping," said Coyle, 43. "I can feel the back end of the truck lifting up."
The National Hurricane Center said the whirling system was about as large as Texas and its eye was 45 miles across. Frances, which days ago loomed as a Category 4 storm, had dropped to between Category 2 and 3, with sustained winds of 105 mph.
Along with spawning several small tornadoes, the storm could dump at least a foot of rain on a state still recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, which killed 27 people and devastated Florida's southwestern coast on Aug. 13. Officials warned of widespread flooding across Central Florida.
"The real issue will be rainfall," said Frank Lepore, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center. "The forecasts now call for 8 to 12 inches across Florida, with locally higher amounts. That's a lot of water coming down the rivers and into the Everglades."
St. Lucie County, home to 230,000 residents, was expected to receive the worst of the storm. "We're planning for a direct hit," said Doug Anderson, a county administrator.
The winds from Frances had become so strong that St. Lucie County fire rescue personnel were no longer responding to emergency calls, officials said. Their high vehicles present too much surface area to the wind, and could be toppled by a strong gust. Sheriff's deputies, who use lower-profile cruisers, were only answering life-or-death calls, said Ken Mascara, St. Lucie County sheriff.
"All I can tell people is, please stay inside. It's really bad out there," Anderson said Saturday in a live television broadcast from the county emergency operations center west of Fort Pierce. Outside the dugout bunker, the wind howled.
Back in Martin County, Steve Crowley, 40, was smacked by a flurry of shingles that ripped off his roof in Jensen Beach. "It was like #10 grit sand paper," he said, as oak trees snapped with loud cracks nearby.
Not far away, Kenny Allen huddled at home with his family and three dogs -- a pit bull, German shepherd and Australian shepherd. He told of a panicked call from his son, who is serving in the military in Afghanistan. "He called yesterday because it was his birthday and he was worried about us," Allen said. "I told him I was worried about him."
As of Saturday, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, Sea World and John F. Kennedy Space Center had all closed their doors. Orlando's airport closed Friday and a Miami International Airport spokesman said that no airlines braved takeoffs or landings Saturday.
In the days before Frances hit land, emergency officials called on 2.8 million residents to flee to safer ground, the largest evacuation in Florida history.
By Saturday afternoon, about 76,000 people had taken refuge in 375 shelters across the state. Shelters also were opened as far away as Georgia and South Carolina to accommodate those escaping Frances.
Authorities in many communities also decreed nighttime curfews to discourage the looting of empty boarded-up homes, but there were still reports of storm-related theft and burglaries. The Navy and Air Force prepared to move ships and aircraft out of the area and all professional sports events were canceled. By Saturday evening, there was only scattered traffic on most coastal roads. The Florida Turnpike, where tolls had been suspended, was also empty.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency mobilized three times as many disaster relief workers for Hurricane Frances as it did for Hurricane Charley, said spokesman James McIntyre. About 1,400 FEMA workers already in Florida for Charley were pulled out of the hurricane strike zone, and were waiting out the storm in Tallahassee, Atlanta and other areas.
"As soon as it's safe to go back in, we'll go back in," McIntyre said. Emergency crews from as far away as Washington state and Oregon will be among the 4,500 additional FEMA personnel -- including three urban rescue teams -- who will help Florida recover after the storm.