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Hurricane swamps Florida

Frances Staggers a Weary Florida

Hurricane dumps up to 17 inches of rain on a state battered by earlier storms. At least 2 people die. Evacuations are ordered in Panhandle.

September 06, 2004|John M. Glionna John-Thor Dahlburg and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

STUART, Fla. — Hurricane Frances swamped the entire Florida peninsula Sunday, leaving at least two people dead and 2.1 million homes and businesses without power. Some communities were doused with as much as 17 inches of rain over the weekend.

The storm appears to have spared the state the full-force hit many had predicted.

Still, Frances isn't done. It was expected to move over the Gulf of Mexico this morning, where it is likely to regain strength before striking the Florida Panhandle near Apalachicola Bay. Evacuation orders were in effect Sunday night in four Panhandle counties, even as Frances was downgraded to a tropical storm.

As the storm made its way across Florida, it left behind a chaotic and topsy-turvy world: boats in parking lots, part of an interstate swallowed by a sinkhole and crabs skittering through sand-filled waterfront neighborhoods, mistaking them for beaches.

Much of Florida was a soggy, stifling mess littered with uprooted pine and ficus trees, shredded billboards, flattened street signs and mangled traffic lights.

"There is not a corner of this state that wasn't impacted by this storm," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Having gone through two hurricanes, Frances and Charley, and Tropical Storm Bonnie in the space of a month, this state is simply spent. And the National Hurricane Center reported Sunday that another hurricane, Ivan, had formed in the Atlantic and was making a run toward Florida.

Ivan was classified as a Category 4 hurricane by Sunday night, with sustained winds of 135 mph, and growing. It is expected to rake the Windward and Caribbean islands this week. Officials suggested that homeowners might not want to bother taking down protective storm shutters.

"People are tired," said Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "They've survived one damaging hurricane and are enduring a second with another storm looming on the horizon."

Gov. Jeb Bush sounded almost resigned to the arrival of Ivan.

"We'll take it on," he said. "We're a resilient state."

Two storm-related deaths had been reported by Sunday night: a man killed in a car accident near Gainesville and a woman who died when an oak crashed onto her mobile home. Officials in eastern counties cautioned, however, that they were only beginning to access and assess some of the worst-hit communities.

Frances came ashore shortly after midnight Sunday at Sewall's Point, a spit of sand east of Stuart and north of Palm Beach that is part of Florida's Treasure Coast.

The storm, which lumbered northwest about 10 mph, was such a large system that at one point hurricane warnings were in effect for the east and west coasts of the state.

By nightfall Sunday, Frances had moved over the interior of Florida and reached the Tampa Bay area, weakened to the point that it was downgraded to a tropical storm with sustained winds of 65 mph, down from about 105 mph when it first struck land.

In Franklin County -- which includes Apalachicola Bay, a quiet waterfront community known for its commercial fishing and passion for oysters -- "we're going crazy," said emergency management representative John Szafranski.

The area was among those hit last month by Tropical Storm Bonnie, but "Bonnie was a drop in the bucket compared to this," Szafranski said. Bridges to island and waterfront communities were only open in one direction.

"You can get out, but you can't get in," he said.

On the east coast of Florida, wind damage was widespread but few large structures appeared to have been destroyed. Some of the 2.8 million people who fled as Frances approached began returning home Sunday, and many were surprised to find their homes standing.

Ginette Ball, 34, of Port St. Lucie lost a wooden fence, a tree and a pool screen, but her three-bedroom, two-bathroom wood-frame house was fine.

"I was incredibly thankful," she said as she prepared a spaghetti dinner on the porch, using a gas-powered barbecue because she had no electricity. "I was expecting not to have a roof."

Floodwaters that began to pool Sunday, more than 4 feet deep in some neighborhoods, remained the most worrisome aspect of Frances, officials said.

In several communities, debris left by Hurricane Charley three weeks ago was still piled in streets and yards when Frances hit. That debris has been swept over storm drains, which means swampy regions that often have trouble draining away rainwater could see lasting flooding.

"It's blocking everything. That's the biggest thing we're dealing with," said Lauren Hames, a spokeswoman for the city of Orlando, which was walloped by Charley and Frances. "We thought we had it hard enough with Charley. At this point we're just trying to hang on. We're just doing the best we can."

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