- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Residents and tourists in cars, trucks and campers clogged highways along the state’s Atlantic coast yesterday, fleeing inland as mighty Hurricane Frances threatened Florida with its second battering in three weeks.

About 2.5 million residents were told to leave, the largest evacuation in state history, ahead of the most powerful storm to threaten Florida in a decade.

Others in the 300-mile stretch covered by a hurricane warning rushed to fortify their homes with plywood and storm shutters, and to buy water, gas and canned food.

Already a Category 4 storm with 145-mph winds and the potential to push ashore waves up to 15 feet high, Frances could make itself felt in the state by midmorning today.

Frances raged through the sparsely populated southeastern Bahamas, unleashing ferocious winds and kicking up 15-foot waves as it headed for the island chain’s main towns and on a path for Florida.

People in the main population centers of Nassau and Freeport rushed to prepare for a predicted overnight battering. Prime Minister Perry Christie urged Bahamians to remain calm, but warned they could see “the most intense hurricane in recorded history.”

Last night, at 11 p.m. EDT, the hurricane was centered 330 miles southeast of West Palm Beach and was moving northwest at close to 10 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 80 miles from its center.

This could be the first time since 1950 that two major storms have hit Florida so close together. On Aug. 13, Hurricane Charley splintered billions of dollars worth of property, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands and killed 27 persons when it tore across the state.

Frances, about as wide as Texas, is also about twice the size of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that destroyed much of southern Miami-Dade County.

Charley’s example — and Frances’ tremendous size — prodded people such as Linda Silvestri, 58, to get out of the way.

Miss Silvestri, who lives in Palm Bay on the central Florida coast, headed inland to Gainesville to be near a hospital because she just received a kidney transplant.

“I hope I have a house when I get back,” she said.

The hurricane warning covered most of the state’s eastern coast, from Florida City, near the state’s southern tip, to Flagler Beach, north of Daytona Beach. Forecasters could not say with certainty where Frances would come ashore, just that it would strike late today or early tomorrow.

About 14.6 million of Florida’s 17 million people live in the areas under hurricane watches and warnings.

Residents and tourists streamed inland in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Traffic backed up for miles on sections of Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the state’s east coast, and was also heavy on parts of I-4, which crosses the peninsula to connect Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tampa.

Geoff Connors of Fort Pierce sat in a line of about 50 cars slowly merging onto I-95 in Fort Pierce. He had enough cash and clothes to get through about five days, though he wasn’t sure where he would end up.

“I figured it was smarter to get out of here now. It was a snap decision,” Mr. Connors said.

Most people who were told to leave were in South Florida — 300,000 in Palm Beach County, 250,000 in Broward County and 320,000 in Miami-Dade County. All of Miami Beach, with its art deco hotels and flashy nightclubs and restaurants, was under an evacuation order.

Erika and Brian Marwood, who moved from Colorado to Orlando two months ago and huddled in their bathroom with glow sticks and candles while Charley rushed overhead, made their way this time to a Holiday Inn in Tifton, Ga.

“We thought we were doing a good thing getting away from the snow, but there are no hurricanes in Colorado,” Mrs. Marwood said.

Gov. Jeb Bush asked his brother, President Bush, to declare Florida a federal disaster area and make storm victims eligible for recovery aid.

Federal officials promised they had enough people and supplies in the state to handle two disaster-relief operations at once.

“We were successful with Charley because we were massive, overwhelming and fast. For this event, I want us to be massive, overwhelming and fast squared,” said Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

People flocked to airports, hoping to get out before all flights were grounded. Some trudged through long lines at ticket counters only to find their flights had been canceled. Hotels and motels inland filled up, and gas stations ran dry.

Florida rescinded tolls on major roads and said lanes on some highways may be reversed to handle the evacuation traffic. State officials hoped to avoid a repeat of the mess during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when 1.3 million people were told to evacuate the state’s east coast and traffic backed up 30 miles or more.

The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral was ordered completely evacuated for the first time because of the dual threats of high wind and storm surge.

The last time two major storms hit Florida so close together was 54 years ago, when Hurricane Easy hit the Tampa area and Hurricane King struck Miami about six weeks later. Neither storm was as powerful as Charley or Frances.

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