- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Hurricane Jeanne got stronger, bigger and faster as it battered the Bahamas and bore down on Florida yesterday, forcing hundreds of thousands more residents to hurriedly shutter their homes ahead of its anticipated devastating punch.

About 2 million people, from near the state’s southern tip to the Georgia border, were urged to evacuate as Jeanne strengthened to 115 mph from 105 mph earlier in the day. It was expected to come ashore late yesterday or early today somewhere on the state’s central Atlantic Coast and take a last-minute turn to the north that could devastate east and central Florida.

“Yesterday, I was hoping we wouldn’t lose power again,” said Lynn Tarrington of Lake Worth, who was leaving her home near the water yesterday. “Now I’m hoping I have a house left when I come back.”

It will be the state’s fourth hurricane in six weeks — a scenario unmatched in more than a century.

Jeanne was expected to hit near where Hurricane Frances came ashore three weeks ago, leaving behind piles of debris that officials feared would turn into deadly, home-destroying missiles in Jeanne’s wind.

“I really can’t believe it’s happening all over again — and right in the same place,” said Charity Brown, who moved to West Palm Beach from Chicago three months ago with her children, ages 5 and 3. They hid in a closet as Frances tore the roof off their apartment. That hole is now covered by a tarp, so the family took shelter at an elementary school that was filling with evacuees.

“I’m going to get out of [Florida]. It’s scary. It’s crazy.”

Martin Memorial Hospital North in Stuart lost part of its roof, allowing water to leak into the building, said Tom McNicholas, an emergency management spokesman in Martin County. Dozens of patients were moved to other floors, but no injuries were reported.

Waves of 24 feet were reported ahead of Jeanne and were moving toward the coast, where 6-foot-high storm surges were expected. Powerful swells knocked pieces of mobile homes out to sea on the central coast.

Earlier, the Category 3 storm tore across the Bahamas, leaving some neighborhoods submerged under 5 feet of water. No deaths or serious injuries were reported there, but the storm earlier was blamed for more than 1,500 deaths in floods in Haiti.

Not since Texas in 1886 has one state been struck by four hurricanes in a season. Jeanne follows Charley, which struck Aug. 13 and devastated southwest Florida; Frances, which struck Labor Day weekend; and Ivan, which blasted the western Panhandle when it made landfall in nearby Alabama on Sept. 16. The storms caused billions of dollars in combined damage and killed at least 70 persons in Florida alone.

Gov. Jeb Bush warned Floridians not to let storm fatigue get the best of them, “even though we’re weary and even though this is a painful process.”

“They must treat this hurricane as if it’s the only hurricane they’ve ever been through,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “This has the potential to cause loss of life.”

Officials ran out of time to remove piles of debris left over from Frances — some taller than most adults — that still sit in neighborhoods. Some people took to burning the downed trees, housing material and other debris that could become airborne, banging into homes and endangering anyone who ventures outside. If debris penetrates a home’s window or wall, that would allow Jeanne’s winds to get inside and push off the roof.

The storm will make the already formidable job of keeping the lights on in Florida even more difficult — especially if Jeanne follows in Frances’ path, giving its wind piles of ammunition to topple power lines.

Electric company officials feared Hurricane Jeanne could leave millions of customers without power, some for three weeks or more. An estimated 6 million people were affected by outages caused by Hurricane Frances.

About 12,000 customers already were without power in South Florida yesterday. In the Panhandle, more than 81,000 homes and business remained without electricity because of Hurricane Ivan.

Florida Power and Light, the state’s largest power company, had recruited 2,500 workers from around the country to help with the impending restoration effort, and was trying to recruit more, the company’s president, Armando Olivera, said.

Gas stations and businesses were boarded up and deserted, and law enforcement took to the radio airwaves, saying that people outside their homes after the 6 p.m. curfew would end up in jail.

It was unknown how many of the 2 million people urged to evacuate actually did, but Judy and Terry Smith, their daughter and son-in-law were among them. State officials said more than 31,000 people were housed in shelters yesterday. Many of them have homes that were damaged by Hurricane Frances.

Some were trying to ride out the storm.

About 40 miles north of West Palm Beach on Hutchinson Island, John Lumberson built a plywood-and-2-by-4 barrier with a porthole to look at raging waves that crashed against his second-story condo home. Frances gutted the condos of his downstairs neighbors with surf that roared through beachfront living rooms and exited the back doors.

“We never leave. We’ll make it,” said Mr. Lumberson, 54.

Late last night, Jeanne was centered about 15 miles east of Stuart. It was moving west and slightly to the north at 13 mph. Top sustained winds were 115 mph.

Jeanne was expected to turn north over central Florida and stay inland over Georgia and the Carolinas through Tuesday. Rainfall totals of 5 to 10 inches were expected in the storm’s path, and flooding could be a major concern because previous hurricanes have already saturated the ground and filled canals, rivers and lakes.

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