- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Hurricane Frances’ wind and water whacked swaths of Florida with fire-hose force yesterday, submerging roadways and tearing off rooftops even as the storm weakened and crawled inland with heavy rain in its wake.

More than 5 million people lost power and at least three persons were killed in the state as more than 13 inches of rain fell along Florida’s east-central coast and caused scattered flooding as a weakened Frances edged across the state toward Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico.

It left behind leveled trees and power lines, tangled traffic lights and beachfront roads littered with coconuts, avocados and tree limbs.

“I was just waiting for the house to blow down,” said Diane Wright, who rode out the storm in a mobile home in Fort Pierce.

Hers didn’t. But even shelters weren’t spared: The roof at a school that was housing evacuees was partially blown off.

Frances razed several mobile homes and made a mess of marinas, throwing dozens of pleasure boats against the shore or on top of each other.

Initial reports of destruction did not rival the estimated $7.4 billion in insured damage caused by Hurricane Charley in southwestern Florida three weeks ago. Frances’ path overlapped with some of the area hit by Charley, which killed 27 persons.

Frances was blamed for at least three deaths in Florida, including two persons who were killed Saturday when their roof collapsed in Palm Beach County. A man was killed when his car hit a tree near Gainesville. There were two earlier deaths in the Bahamas, where thousands were forced from their homes.

Officials warned that the aftermath could pose greater risks.

“There are still dangers on our streets where the hurricane passed,” Gov. Jeb Bush said. “Please be patient.”

Mr. Bush and 20 state and federal emergency officials surveyed damage as they flew from Tallahassee to West Palm Beach, but the governor said it was too early to assess the extent of the devastation.

Mr. Bush issued an executive order for the next seven days that gave the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) the authority to control the distribution and allocation of gasoline in the state.

When asked whether the order meant gasoline will be rationed, DEP Secretary Colleen Castille said, “It does gives us the full authority to do that. We are not at that situation yet.”

President Bush talked with his brother yesterday afternoon to assure Floridians that federal resources were in place to respond, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

About 8,000 members of the National Guard were assigned to recovery efforts. Suspected looters were arrested in Palm Beach, Orange and Indian River counties.

Once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 mph, Frances slowed and weakened to a Category 2 storm as it neared Florida. Winds receded to a peak of 105 mph before it made landfall at Sewall’s Point, north of Palm Beach, at about 1 a.m. One gust was clocked at 115 mph.

“We don’t know what all of our damage is yet, but we know it could have been a lot worse,” Martin County administrator Russ Blackburn said.

By last night, Frances had been downgraded to a tropical storm, with maximum winds near 65 mph and its center about 15 miles east of Tampa. The storm, which was crawling west-northwest at 8 mph, could regain hurricane strength over the Gulf of Mexico before renewing its plodding assault on the Florida Panhandle.

The storm shut down much of Florida on the traditionally busy Labor Day weekend. Airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale reopened, and officials in the two counties told evacuees that they could return home.

New evacuations began in four counties in Florida’s Panhandle, where Frances is expected to hit today after crossing the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. The most likely location for landfall was St. George Island, forecasters said.

The scope of the enormous storm was evident yesterday as bands of rain and gusty wind extended the length of the state’s 430-mile east coast from the Keys to Jacksonville and beyond along the Georgia coast.

Police blocked access to the county’s barrier islands, including Palm Beach and Singer Island, and enforced a 24-hour curfew.

Some attributed the storm’s weakening to answered prayers. Frances forced the cancellation of church services across much of the state, but seven persons ventured out to attend a service at Miami Lakes United Methodist Church.

“It’s still the Lord’s day,” the Rev. Mark Caldwell said. “It’s our destiny to show the world we can come here and be thankful.”

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