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Frances' Last Gasp Hits Southeast

Flooding and tornadoes strike Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Floridians head home.

September 08, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Tropical Depression Frances, now a colossal, dying storm, beat the Southeast with wind and rain Tuesday, spawning at least 30 small tornadoes and threatening severe flooding.

Before dawn in Atlanta, trees flattened picket fences, crunched parked cars, snapped power lines and, in a few cases, crashed into the bedrooms of sleeping families. More than 300,000 Georgians were still without power late Tuesday.

As the storm's eye wobbled up the east side of Alabama, its reach extended into South Carolina -- where at mid-morning a lighting-quick tornado flipped a mobile home, injuring the three people inside. In the mountains of South Carolina and Georgia, dark clouds dumped 10 inches of rain.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Floridians who evacuated last week in advance of then-Hurricane Frances were making their way home Tuesday. They lined up at aid stations for diapers and detergent and ice, and waited for hours to pump gasoline into containers for emergency use.

With a third major storm, Hurricane Ivan, building in the Caribbean, many survivors half-expect another blow, one aid worker said -- even though officials predicted it was not likely to hit Florida.

"Already, people are talking 'Ivan this' and 'Ivan that.' They're calling it Ivan the Terrible," said Peter Teahen, an American Red Cross spokesman.

Ivan made a direct hit on Grenada on Tuesday, Associated Press reported, blasting apart scores of homes and hurling hundreds of the island's landmark red zinc roofs through the air. No injuries were reported. The storm also damaged homes in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and appeared set to come down on Jamaica by Thursday.

Hurricanes begin to disintegrate as soon as they move inland, but their death is slow and destructive, said Joe Peliffier, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Greer, S.C. The weakness begins at the eye, which softens and dissolves. But in the meantime, the storm continues to rotate powerfully, and its water-saturated outer bands can generate tornadoes and flash floods.

The majority of Americans killed by hurricanes are not victims of the winds; most are motorists who drown after driving into flooded areas.

"People get fixated initially on the strong winds and the storm surge," said Michael Eckert, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service. In the days after landfall, with the drama over, "people take their guard down, and they shouldn't."

Frances has been blamed for 13 deaths in Florida.

In Georgia, five people died in traffic accidents caused by the storm, said a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Congress rushed Tuesday to approve $2 billion in federal emergency disaster relief for Florida. President Bush plans to tour hurricane-damaged areas of the politically important state today. According to the Florida Emergency Operations Center, almost 13,000 people are still in state-operated shelters. About 2.2 million people do not have power.

The state shipped in 125 million gallons of gasoline Tuesday, but stations still were crowded and tense -- with fights breaking out at some -- said Leslie Ocamb, a dispatcher at Florida Rock & Tank lines, a major supplier to gas retailers in the state.

Truck drivers in some cases had to wait hours until the line cleared enough to deliver fuel. And as soon as a delivery was made, Ocamb said, customers were "swarming," filling up five-gallon containers.

"Some of them have, let's just say, five or 10 containers in the back of their truck," Ocamb said.

As Frances moved to the northeast at 5 mph, it spun off a scattering of small tornadoes with winds that reached 70 to 100 mph. Shrouded with rain, the tornadoes often were impossible to identify except by the damage they left behind.

In Sumter County, S.C., high winds destroyed 29 houses, some made of brick, and three people were injured in the toppled trailer home. Teachers led schoolchildren into building corridors for safety and kept them there most of the morning, said Victor Jones, public safety director for Sumter County.

"It hit right quick. We don't see storms coming; it was so black with clouds," Jones said.

Tornadoes also touched down in Savannah, Ga.

LaTrelle Harrison was at the dinner table with her husband when she spotted a dark funnel cloud approaching her home. As she watched, it moved toward her -- then started moving in small circles, and then disappeared back into the clouds. It came back a second time, only to disappear and reemerge.

"I said, 'Oh, Lord, have mercy,' " said Harrison, 62. "You never know what's going to happen. Is this going to be my last breath?"

As survivors of Hurricane Frances tried to piece their lives and homes back together, meteorologists were looking toward Ivan, a dangerous Category 4 hurricane that appeared likely to pass into the Gulf of Mexico without touching Florida.

Those reassurances may be lost on Floridians, who were returning Tuesday to their homes full of adrenalin and anxiety, the Red Cross' Teahen said.

"The thing we'll see out of this one is the heavy emotional toll," he said. "The stuff that we see in these high-stress levels is an increase in domestic violence, an increase in suicide, simply because people are struggling with the fear and anxiety."

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