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Florida Savaged by Storm

Florida Digs In as It Digs Out

Frances drenches the Panhandle as another hurricane slowly approaches.

September 07, 2004|Chris Gaither and David Colker | Times Staff Writers

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Floridians battered by Hurricane Frances emerged from shuttered homes and shelters Monday to face ruined houses, felled trees and lines the length of two football fields for suddenly precious ice, batteries and gasoline.

Weakened to a tropical storm but still blowing winds of 65 mph, Frances made its second landfall Monday afternoon south of Tallahassee. It dumped as much as 10 inches of rain and knocked out power in the state's Panhandle before winds dropped to 35 mph. Frances is headed to Georgia and Alabama.

The storm swamped the downstate peninsula over the weekend with as much as 13 inches of rain before passing over the Gulf of Mexico and aiming for the Panhandle.

Frances left damage "in the couple of billions of dollars," according to an early estimate from state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. Last month, Hurricane Charley ravaged the southwestern coast and destroyed or damaged more than 30,000 homes; insured losses were estimated at $7.4 billion.

"There's some individual home damage, but not a lot of total wipeout" compared with Charley, said Gallagher, who toured stricken areas Monday.

The state's tourism industry also took a hit. Frances disrupted the typically busy Labor Day weekend, as theme parks, restaurants, souvenir shops and convention centers shut down.

But as power came back on in some communities, restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses along the Atlantic coast began to open their doors.

Airports in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Vero Beach, Tampa and Orlando reopened.

At Cape Canaveral, 85 miles north of Sewall's Point, where the hurricane came ashore early Sunday, heavy winds dislodged more than 1,000 panels from a building where spacecraft are assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Officials said the damage could delay plans to resume shuttle launches next spring.

The storm killed nine people as it rampaged through the Bahamas and Florida, including the son-in-law and grandson of Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden. The two were killed when their car skidded on Interstate 10 in Alachua County, in northern Florida, and struck a utility truck coming from Texas to help restore power.

Frances struck while Florida was recovering from Charley, a smaller but more powerful storm that killed 27 people last month.

As it churned across the Caribbean toward the mainland last week, Frances was a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step intensity scale, with sustained winds of 145 mph. Its winds slowed to 105 mph by the time it reached Florida, making it a Category 2 hurricane. But its slow crawl across the Bahamas and Florida allowed it to dump a tremendous amount of rain.

Frances knocked out power to 3.3 million homes and businesses, flooded neighborhoods from Palm Beach to Tampa, and peeled off roofs.

Judy and Norman Michaud moved from Maine to Ridgeway, in Martin County on the Atlantic coast, two years ago to escape the winters and ease her arthritis. On Monday, Judy, 61, cried as she toured the wreckage of her mobile home. The living room and bedroom were exposed to the sky and the furniture was soaked and covered with debris.

"I don't want to stay in Florida, but my husband said we just have to start over," she said.

Even those whose homes were untouched struggled to find the basics of modern life.

Florida Power and Light, the state's biggest utility, said 1.3 million of the 2.8 million households and businesses it serves remained without power at 4 p.m. Monday. The Emergency Operations Center said it did not know how many people remained without electricity statewide.

In Palm Beach County, where 17% of homes and businesses had power by late afternoon, radio stations reported that a Wal-Mart selling ice and batteries would open at noon. By 12:15, more than 1,000 people had lined up.

At the back of the line was William Giarraputo, 57. He had waited six hours at a Home Depot to buy plywood before the storm, and was willing to wait almost as long to get ice before the food in his freezer spoiled. He had already eaten the best of it: a lobster tail he boiled on his gas stove as the storm raged. "I wanted comfort food," he said.

Gasoline remained in short supply; stations either had no fuel or no power to pump it. Lines of cars snaked down the block at any place that looked like it may have gas. State officials said tankers were expected to deliver 125 million gallons of gas by Wednesday as ports reopen.

Looming over Floridians was the possibility that another hurricane was on its way. Ivan, a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 105 mph, is swirling near the island of Barbados and could arrive near Cuba -- then Florida, perhaps -- by the end of the week, said forecasters with the National Hurricane Center.

"People are just going to leave their hurricane shutters up," Michael Papa, a school administrator, said as he hauled broken branches and palm fronds to the curb outside his home in West Palm Beach's Flamingo Park.

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