- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

From combined dispatches

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Massive Hurricane Frances trudged toward land with 105-mph wind and pelting rain late yesterday, knocking out power to 2 million people and forcing Floridians to endure a frightening night amid roaring gales that shredded roofs and uprooted trees.

The storm’s slow-motion assault — Frances crawled toward Florida at 5 mph before stalling over warm water — came more than a day later than predicted. The western portion of the hurricane’s eye crept over parts of the east-central Florida coast last night, but its strongest winds were expected to begin hitting early this morning.

Four persons were hospitalized in Boynton Beach after breathing carbon monoxide fumes from a generator that was running in a house. No other injuries were immediately reported.

En route, Frances shattered windows, toppled power lines and flooded neighborhoods in the Bahamas, driving thousands from their homes. The Freeport airport was partially submerged.

Residents could take comfort that Frances weakened as it lingered off the coast. Forecasters downgraded it to a Category 2 hurricane as sustained winds receded to 105 mph, down from 145 earlier. The rain forecast of about a foot was less ominous than the 20 inches first feared, but still enough to cause widespread flooding.

The largest evacuation in state history, with 2.8 million residents ordered inland, sent 70,000 residents and tourists into shelters. The storm shut down much of Florida, including airports and amusement parks, at the start of the usually busy Labor Day weekend.

Some evacuees, frustrated by Frances’ sluggish pace, decided to leave shelters and return later.

Deborah Nicholas dashed home from a Fort Pierce shelter to take a shower, but stayed only a few minutes when the lights started flickering and trees began popping out of the ground. She has slept in a deck chair at a high school cafeteria since Wednesday.

“I’m going stir-crazy,” Miss Nicholas said. “I’m going to be in a straitjacket by Monday. I don’t know how much longer I can take it. Have mercy.”

Shelter life wasn’t for everyone.

Ron and Virginia Pastuch went home after spending two days at a Palm Bay shelter. Mr. Pastuch said he had never been in a shelter before.

“It’s the first time, and the last time, too,” he said.

In Cocoa Beach, Paul and Ann Jutras sat comfortably in their home, two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, as Frances headed their way. The couple, both 61, didn’t follow evacuation orders. Instead, they were looking forward to a test of the home Mr. Jutras designed and considers to be hurricane-proof.

“If this house goes, the whole town will be gone,” he said, watching a college football game on television while his wife read a book on their sofa. Their 34-year-old son watched TV in his bedroom.

Confident in their home, the family never considered leaving this barrier island just south of Cape Canaveral. Mr. Jutras, a retired Defense Department engineer, said he had the house built twice as strong as regulations required.

“We built this place like a pillbox,” he said, noting that he has two roofs in case the top one gets damaged. The house also has extra beams, plywood far thicker than most builders use and electric, self-closing hurricane shutters. “I drove the contractors nuts.”

Some took the occasion to celebrate.

“This sucker is taking forever,” said Bonnie Berg, who threw a party. “I’d go crazy if I wasn’t having a party.”

Instead of first-aid kits and hurricane charts, the nine persons at her party raised champagne flutes to go with steamed crabs and potato chips.

Norm Yacovino, whose daughter works with Miss Berg, praised his host for her preparations.

“When everyone was running around for lumber, Bonnie was running around for Moet,” short for the French champagne Moet & Chandon. Six bottles sat in her refrigerator.

Not everyone stayed home or went to a shelter, however: Two men were charged with looting for trying to break into a Brevard County church.

And thrill-seekers headed to the otherwise-deserted beaches. In Miami Beach, a few dozen surfers caught some monstrous waves as the hurricane churned up the ocean. A group of firefighters stood by for any emergency call.

“I should be telling you it’s dangerous, and it is. But I’m a surfer, and I just wish I could be out there,” one of the firefighters said as he watched a couple of young men ride a 10-foot wave.

Police squad cars eventually showed up, and tried to get the surfers out of the water without much success. Nearby, a young woman yelled into her cell phone, telling a friend in New York: “This is so exciting.”

Farther down the beach, a lone swimmer held onto a buoy moored to the beach.

“It’s great surf, but it’s also really dangerous. There’s a very strong current,” said Ibra Morales, as he came out of the water.

A resident of Miami Beach who chose to ignore a mandatory evacuation, Mr. Morales said he had been out jogging earlier in the day. “I’m training for the New York Marathon,” he said.

In Pompano Beach, close to the spot where the eye of Frances was expected to make landfall, a lone surfer, who would identify himself only as Jason, jumped off a pier into the huge waves. Hours later, police were still searching for him.

A few people showed up just to get a look at the approaching storm. “I came out to check out the waves,” said landscaper James Jacobson, 41.

Officials repeatedly urged people to remain indoors, saying the conditions would gradually deteriorate and that flooding, downed power lines and fierce winds presented a major threat.

“It doesn’t seem that dangerous,” Mr. Jacobson said.

Once the storm makes land, it will take 12 to 15 hours to cross the peninsula, the hurricane center said. Frances was expected to push across the state as a tropical storm just north of Tampa, weaken to a tropical depression and drench the Panhandle tomorrow before moving into Alabama.

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

The ninth named storm of the season grew stronger yesterday in the far eastern Atlantic. Tropical Storm Ivan was about 1,575 miles east-southeast of the Lesser Antilles with winds of 60 mph.

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