- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

MIAMI (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people were told yesterday to get ready to evacuate as powerful Hurricane Frances crept closer to Florida just weeks after Hurricane Charley’s rampage.

Generators were hefted off store shelves, as were canned goods, water and other emergency supplies as forecasters warned that the core of the Category 4 storm with 140-mph top sustained winds was expected along Florida’s Atlantic coast late tomorrow or early Saturday. Charley left billions of dollars in damage and 27 persons dead when it swept across the peninsula Aug. 13.

“I can’t emphasize enough how powerful this is. If there’s something out there that’s going to weaken it, we haven’t seen it,” National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said.

About 300,000 residents in coastal areas of Palm Beach County were told to evacuate starting at 2 p.m. today.

In Rockledge, about 45 miles southeast of Orlando, Brevard County officials told at least 50,000 residents to start evacuating mobile homes and barrier islands this afternoon. In Stuart, about 85 miles south, Martin County planned to urge 7,500 residents to evacuate low-lying areas. More evacuation orders along Florida’s east coast were likely.

The Kennedy Space Center planned to close today and tomorrow to allow workers time to board up their homes and evacuate if necessary, said NASA spokesman George Diller.

Craig Fugate, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, said steps were being taken to prepare for large-scale evacuations, including possibly reversing lanes of some highways to accommodate fleeing coastal residents.

Frances was nearing the Bahamas with steady strength, but it was expected to fluctuate in intensity and could become a Category 5 storm with top sustained winds of 156 mph or higher, forecasters said. The storm could hit anywhere from South Florida to South Carolina as early as late tomorrow.

Hurricane-force winds extended up to about 80 miles from Frances’ center, making it about twice the width of Charley and increasing the risk for damage, forecasters said.

“The lessons of these storms are that all the science in the world and all the technology in the world isn’t going to be able to pinpoint exactly where the storm goes,” Gov. Jeb Bush said.

Records from the past century show that no two Category 4 storms with winds of 131 to 155 mph hit a state within weeks of each other, hurricane center meteorologist Rick Knabb said.

The last time two major hurricanes hit Florida in rapid succession was in 1950. Hurricane Easy hit Tampa around Sept. 4 of that year and Hurricane King followed on Oct. 17. They were Category 3 storms.

Nancy Cuffaro, whose home and pizza restaurant were damaged by Charley, said she was hoping Frances would spare the area, which was still cleaning up and recovering emotionally. She is in Port Charlotte in hard-hit southwest Florida. The greatest danger from Frances is along the state’s east coast.

“I know we can’t withstand too much. I really don’t know what to think here. I’m lost. It’s starting to get to me,” said Miss Cuffaro, whose restaurant still did not have electricity.

With the memories of destruction so fresh, many people didn’t need an official heads-up to begin preparing. About two dozen people lined up yesterday morning at a Home Depot store west of Miami, waiting to pay for items such as generators, tarps, flashlights and batteries.

A Home Depot to the south in Florida City, ground zero during Hurricane Andrew 12 years ago, more than doubled its daily sales, ran out of generators and plywood, and pushed $50,000 worth of lumber out the doors on Tuesday, said Lisa Ftiffler, assistant store manager.

“We are completely out of stock of plywood,” she said. “We are waiting on another truck. We have people since 5 a.m. waiting for generators and the plywood.”

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