- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 4, 2004

STUART, Fla. — Hurricane Frances lost some steam and hesitated off the Florida coast yesterday, prolonging the anxiety among the millions evacuated and raising fears of a slow, ruinous drenching over the Labor Day weekend.

Downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane, the storm was expected to come ashore with up to 20 inches of rain this afternoon, nearly a day later than earlier predictions.

For the 2.5 million residents told to clear out — the biggest evacuation in Florida’s history — and the millions of others who remained at home, Frances’ tardy arrival meant yet another day of waiting and worrying.

“It’s all the anticipation that really gets to you,” said Frank McKnight of Wellington, who waited four hours at a hardware store to buy plywood. “I just wish it would get here and we could get it all over with. I want to know now — am I going to have a house left or not?”

A hurricane warning remained in effect for Florida’s eastern coast, from Flagler Beach south almost to the state’s tip, and Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for all of Florida.

Frances battered the main tourist hub in the Bahamas yesterday, unleashing deadly winds that shattered windows in skyscrapers, toppled trees and set off scattered looting. One man was electrocuted in the storm.

Streets were almost deserted in Nassau, the capital on New Providence Island, which is home to more than two-thirds of the island nation’s 300,000 people. Many boarded up their homes and hunkered down inside to ride out the expansive storm that was headed toward Florida.

Fallen trees, debris and downed satellite dishes littered roads and power was knocked out in many parts of the city. At least three boats were destroyed. There were scattered reports of looting, police said, including one man who broke into a Texaco gas station and another who was arrested for stealing appliances.

Cruise ships around the Bahamas were diverted out of Frances’ path and many beachfront hotels were evacuated across the chain of more than 700 islands.

Frances brushed past Crooked Island and Acklins Island — home to about 1,100 people — late Thursday, knocking out power and phones but doing only minimal damage, said Alfred Gray, the agriculture and fisheries minister.

Officials said Frances also left only minor damage in the Turks and Caicos Islands on Wednesday, damaging more than a dozen houses. One woman was rescued when her roof blew off, but the hurricane’s eye missed the heart of the British territory.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard was searching for a Fort Lauderdale-bound pleasure boat that made a distress call about 12 miles west of Bimini in the Bahamas.

Three persons were reported to be aboard the boat stuck in 9-foot swells.

But in Florida, state meteorologist Ben Nelson said Frances might remain over the state for two cycles of high tide, meaning two rounds of storm surges expected to be 5 to 10 feet.

“The water has nowhere to go and gets trapped because our elevation is so low,” Mr. Nelson said. “It could be a large mess.”

Wind gusts in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach had already reached 38 mph yesterday afternoon. Palm fronds bent in the wind as waves slammed into the beaches. A gust peeled half the roof off a mobile home in Davie, but no one was hurt.

In Miami, which was expected to escape the worst of Frances, winds at the leading edge toppled trees and caused scattered power outages. Among those evacuated were about 3,000 state inmates and approximately 500 patients at more than a dozen hospitals.

Frances is expected to come ashore along the middle of Florida’s eastern coast, crawl across the state as a tropical storm just north of Tampa and weaken to a tropical depression as it moves over the Panhandle on Monday.

The threat comes three weeks after Hurricane Charley killed 27 persons and caused billions of dollars in damage in southwestern Florida.

For the most part, evacuees seemed to be adapting calmly to spending Labor Day weekend in shelters.

Nancy Syphax said the mood was good at an elementary school in Jensen Beach. “This is a necessary precaution,” she said. “I’d rather be safe than comfortable at this moment.”

Many schools and government offices closed, as did major amusement parks, the Kennedy Space Center and airports serving Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Melbourne.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency mobilized 4,500 workers, three times the number sent to help victims of Charley. Officials said they had enough people and supplies in the state to handle two disaster-relief operations at once.

The American Red Cross planned a larger relief operation than the one it conducted after Hurricane Andrew. Back then, the agency spent $81 million.

Hurricane season usually peaks in early September, and the ninth named storm of the season formed yesterday in the far eastern Atlantic. Tropical Storm Ivan was about 865 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands with winds of 50 mph.

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