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Frances floods Florida, leaves three dead
Updated: 2004-09-06 08:24

Hurricane Frances' wind and water whacked swaths of Florida with fire-hose force Sunday, submerging entire roadways and tearing off rooftops before weakening to a tropical storm and crawling inland with heavy rain. More than 5 million people lost power, and three people were killed.

Over 13 inches of rain fell along Florida's central east coast, flooding some areas four feet deep, as a weakened Frances edged across the state toward Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico. In its wake, trees and power lines were leveled, broken traffic lights dangled and beachfront roads were littered with coconuts, avocados and tree limbs.

Traffic lights down in the West Boynton Beach, Florida, area on September 5, 2004. Hurricane Frances slowed to about 5 miles an hour causing major power outages to over 500,000 residents and wide spread flooding.  [Reuters]

"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 housing evacuees was partially blown off.

The scope of the enormous storm was evident Sunday 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. It was expected to move into the panhandle Monday, then into Georgia and Alabama.

St. Lucie County firefighter Jeff Percy checks for victims at a mobile home destroyed by Hurricane Frances in Fort Pierce, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 5, 2004. None were found.  [AP]

The storm was blamed for at least three deaths in Florida, including two people who were killed Saturday when their roof collapsed in Palm Beach County. Another 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.

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.

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

Officials warned the aftermath could pose even greater risks. "There are still dangers on our streets where the hurricane passed," Jeb Bush said. "Please be patient."

U.S. President Bush talked to his brother on Sunday afternoon to assure Floridians that federal resources were in place to help respond, a White House spokesman said.

Some 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, around 1 a.m. EDT. 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.

Initial reports of destruction did not rival the estimated $7.4 billion in insured damage caused by Hurricane Charley in southwest Florida three weeks ago. Frances' path overlapped with some of the area hit by Charley, which killed 27 people. One risk-assessment company estimated insured losses could range from $2 billion to $5 billion.

By Sunday evening, 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.

At one time, about 2.8 million residents in 40 counties were told to evacuate from coastal areas, barrier islands, mobile homes and low-lying areas. The largest evacuation in state history sent 108,000 people to shelters.

Airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Martin County reopened, but those in Orlando and about 10 other cities remained closed. Officials in Miami and Fort Lauderdale told evacuees they could return home. Miami's airport was crowded with tourists whose vacations were ruined or interrupted by Frances.

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

Northbound Interstate 95 was closed in Palm Beach County because of a washout. Farther north, about two dozen large oak trees obstructed parts of I-95 over a 50-mile stretch. Authorities closed the majestic Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay. In Martin County, 630 evacuees at a school were forced to another shelter when part of the roof blew off, flooding 16 rooms.

Heavy rain transformed some neighborhoods into waterfront property. Roads in Palm Beach County were covered by up to four feet of water. Neighbors waded to each others' homes after being shuttered inside for nearly 24 hours.

"All our trees are down and I have a few windows broken, but I don't know what else is flooded because I can't get anywhere," said Carline Cadet, waving at the water covering the streets around her home.

Police blocked access to the county's barrier islands, including Palm Beach and Singer Island, and enforced a 24-hour curfew. Officials said roads were too dangerous for travel.

State officials suggested motorists conserve gasoline. The governor signed an order giving the state authority to regulate fuel supplies, assigning priority for the next week to emergency workers, cleanup crews and military operations.

Some attributed the storm's weakening to answered prayers. Frances forced the cancellation of church services across much of the state, but seven people 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."

At a mobile home park in north Fort Pierce, Timothy Fellows emerged from the storm to find a neighbor's trailer demolished but only a fence down on his property.

"My trailer survived!" the barechested Fellows shouted as he walked through his yard. "Because I believe in God. Even my mailbox survived. That tells you something."

Elsewhere in Fort Pierce, a large steel railroad crossing signal downtown was twisted like a corkscrew. Gas station awnings sat on their sides blocking the pumps. Downtown streets were crisscrossed with toppled palm trees.

Along the waterfront, eight sail and fishing boats lay on their sides, broken apart in a row at the city's marina. On nearby Hutchinson Island, the Royal Inn lost its entire roof and a hole was punched on the side of the building.

Ramiro Venegas, an itinerant worker from Mexico, said the storm forced him to spend two nights sleeping in a men's toilet at a Fort Pierce marina. He had been staying in his girlfriend's car until she ditched him two days earlier.

"I'm thirsty, I'm hungry, and I'm soaking wet," Venegas said.

Despite warnings, some evacuees were eager to venture out to inspect their homes.

Gabriela Balderas and her two children left the shelter at West Gate Elementary School in West Palm Beach to see what was left at their mobile home.

"We have been waiting so long to leave. They say we might not be able to get home, but we have to try," she said.

Police in the Orlando area said 10 thieves used a stolen car to smash into a store and steal about $10,000 worth of clothing, and two men were arrested as they tried to steal an ATM machine with a chain saw.

Also Sunday, at the peak of the hurricane season, Ivan became the fifth hurricane of the year in the central Atlantic. It was about 820 miles east-southeast of Barbados with winds near 125 mph. Under current projections, Puerto Rico and Barbados are in the storm's path. Officials said it was too soon to say whether Ivan would hit the United States.

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