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Florida Is Taking Another Hit

The fourth hurricane in six weeks rips into the weary state, heading toward Georgia.

September 26, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Strengthening to a Category 3 hurricane with howling winds of 120 mph, Jeanne battered Florida's heavily populated Atlantic shoreline Saturday on a trajectory eerily akin to that of another hurricane three weeks ago.

The eye wall of the storm hit just south of here, at Stuart, and by 11 p.m. the eye itself was starting to move ashore over Martin and St. Lucie counties.

Power was out and streets were flooded as this and surrounding communities felt the first effects of a record fourth hurricane to smack into Florida in six weeks. Jeanne has proved to be the deadliest storm, claiming 1,500 lives in Haiti alone.

"This is a nightmare," said Carylle Barr, 62, who checked into a Holiday Inn in Port St. Lucie on Saturday afternoon with her husband and their dog because she didn't trust her home one mile away to withstand another hurricane. "The stress level is like nothing else. This is just maxing everybody out."

In addition to Jeanne, Frances, Ivan and Charley have battered the state since Aug. 13. According to weather historians, only Texas in 1886 has felt the fury of four hurricanes in a year.

Hurricane warnings had been in effect from Florida City in the south to St. Augustine in the north; beyond St. Augustine, a hurricane watch was in force to Altamaha Sound, Ga. The center is projected to move across Central Florida today, with cities such as Orlando in its path.

As predicted, Jeanne came ashore on Florida's Treasure Coast, where Hurricane Frances made landfall Sept. 5. That Category 2 storm, though significantly weaker, caused an estimated $4.1 billion in insured damage from Florida's Atlantic coastal communities to the Panhandle and was blamed for at least 24 deaths.

On Saturday, as Jeanne hammered the nearby islands of the Bahamas, about 2 million Floridians were ordered or urged to evacuate coastal areas. Sections of Florida's Turnpike were jammed as people tried to escape.

"I can't imagine someone not taking this seriously after the last six weeks," said Gov. Jeb Bush, urging Floridians not to let their guard down in the face of yet another hurricane.

"People are really tired, tense," said David Graham, public information officer for Martin County, the jurisdiction south of Port St. Lucie where the eye of Frances made landfall. "You have a lot of properties that suffered damage from the earlier hurricane. A lot of them have tarps on them, including mine. After tonight, those tarps will be gone."

Even though 250,000 cubic yards of the debris -- downed vegetation and construction wreckage -- left behind by Frances in Martin County had been scooped up by contractors, Graham said as much as three times that amount was still uncollected. There are worries that the debris could become deadly projectiles in Jeanne's intense winds or clog up drainage systems and cause flooding, he said.

In Palm Beach County, which also experienced extensive property damage and flooding from Frances, spokesman Mark Esterly said the ground was still saturated from the earlier hurricane and ensuing rainstorms. "It couldn't take another average afternoon rainstorm, let alone the 8 to 10 inches we are predicting," Esterly said. "Widespread flooding is possible if not likely."

After hitting Haiti last weekend, Jeanne plodded north toward Bermuda but made a lazy easterly loop in the Atlantic and set its sights on the Bahamas and Florida.

On Saturday, as it intensified to a Category 3 hurricane on the five-point scale, Jeanne pummeled Great Abaco Island in the northwestern Bahamas with violent winds and lashing rains before heading for the archipelago's second-largest city, Freeport. Winds tore off roofs, toppled trees and knocked out electricity and telephone service.

Some neighborhoods on Great Abaco and Grand Bahama were reportedly under 5 feet of flood water. No deaths were immediately reported. Three weeks earlier, Frances had killed two people and damaged thousands of homes in the Bahamas before arriving in Florida.

After hitting the coast of Florida, Jeanne was forecast to hook northward over Florida and run inland parallel to the coastline of Georgia and the Carolinas.

Battering waves, along with a coastal storm surge 4 to 6 feet above normal, were forecast near and north of the point of landfall. Rainfall of 5 to 10 inches along Jeanne's path was also predicted, along with isolated tornadoes. Higher tides than usual were forecast along Florida's Gulf coast, including 3 to 6 feet above normal north of Tampa Bay.

Up and down Florida's eastern coast, residents made last-minute preparations as Jeanne approached. Local authorities told people to leave mobile home parks, barrier islands and other potentially dangerous locations, opened shelters to house evacuees and announced curfews until the storm had passed.

"We are doing exactly what we did three weeks ago," said Esterly, the Palm Beach County official. "What can you say? The odds of [another hurricane] are extremely remote, but it looks like it's going to happen and we have activated fully."

Charley came ashore on the southwestern Gulf Coast on Aug. 13, devastating trailer parks and leading to 27 deaths in the state. Frances hit over Labor Day weekend. On Sept. 16, Ivan crashed into the Alabama coastline near Mobile, but the hurricane's eastern edge caused widespread devastation in Pensacola and other parts of Florida's Panhandle and was blamed for 52 deaths in the United States.

As Jeanne bore down on Port St. Lucie, parents sought refuge with their children in the corridors outside their rooms at the Holiday Inn to get away from windows as the wind pressed hard against the glass.

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