Sunday, September 5, 2004

Sluggish Frances prolongs tense vigil

Hurricane's outer bands lash Florida

By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer

A sailboat that broke free of its moorings amid the approach of Hurricane Frances crashes into a boat dock in Valkaria, Fla..
(AP Photo/Craig Rubadoux)
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Slow-moving Hurricane Frances has confined hundreds of thousands of Floridians, who took refuge from the Category 2 storm the size of Texas on Saturday as the outer bands whipped the Sunshine State's Atlantic Coast with winds of 90 mph. The storm was also producing drenching rain that could amount to more than 20 inches in some areas.

Forecasters expected the hurricane to officially reach land by early today, a full day later than originally predicted. It moved at a sluggish 5 mph for most of the day.

That has left people like Earl and Petera Hamilton in a dark house on Jensen Beach, a small village between Stuart and Melbourne that is among the areas hardest hit.

Petera Hamilton said people such as themselves, who have newer homes that have better windows and hurricane shutters, were asked to stay there and not go to shelters, which are filled to capacity with about 70,000 people. Even more people left their homes to stay with relatives or friends.

"It's very frustrating," Petera Hamilton said of being prisoners in their own home. "I don't blame anybody for having us hunker down a little early. But we have no air conditioning, no lights and a bird that doesn't understand why it's dark 24 hours a day. Earl did drill little holes in our shutters, so we can peak outside and get a very miniature view of what's going on.

"It's hot and pitch black, and all we can hear is the wind howling. But we're blessed: everyone is alive."

She added: "And we have plenty of food and water."

Wind gusts in nearby Jupiter surpassed hurricane force at 91 mph Saturday, tossing boats around like toys and making it difficult for people who did venture outside to stand up. More than 460,000 Florida Power & Light customers were without power Saturday.

About 2.8 million people were told to evacuate their homes - the largest such order in the state's history - but it is unknown how many actually did. Major amusements parks, the Kennedy Space Center and airports serving Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Melbourne all closed.

Curtis Bonekemper, a 36-year-old who grew up in Loveland and moved to Stuart in June, left his rental house and went into a private shelter of sorts - a doctor's office in downtown Stuart. Bonekemper lives on the Intercoastal Waterway, just off Hutchinson Island.

"It's amazing to watch the stress level build in people," Bonekemper said. "There's great anticipation of something that big coming ashore, then it just sits there for a day and a half and prolongs the agony. We have enough fluids, but we didn't bring enough food for an extended stay, so we're rationing more than we thought we'd have to."

Frances' top winds had fallen to 105 mph Saturday, down from 145 mph and a Category 4 storm on Thursday. But its plodding pace meant it could cause disastrous flooding. Gov. Jeb Bush said: "This is going to be a tough ride for us."

State meteorologist Ben Nelson said Frances might remain over Florida for two cycles of high tide, meaning two rounds of storm surges, expected to be 4 to 6 feet. The storm is expected to push across the state just north of Tampa as a tropical storm, then weaken to a tropical depression as it moves over the Panhandle on Monday. It will take 12 to 15 hours for it to cross the peninsula.

Florida is getting plenty of help from the Buckeye State. Ohio has sent 79 American Red Cross volunteers - including two from the Cincinnati chapter. In addition, Cinergy has sent more than 100 of its workers to help restore power once the storm has passed. All of those volunteers are waiting in Atlanta until the hurricane is over, then will be deployed to hard-hit areas.

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

Dr. Ira Abrahamson, an East Walnut Hills opthalmologist who owns a hotel in Freeport, Bahamas, said his Chillingsworth Court property could have upward of $200,000 in damage. He hasn't been able to get through to his on-site manager by phone.

"They've had four feet of rain," Abrahamson said from his Cincinnati home. "All of our apartments on the first floor may be flooded out. And we have a flat roof, so we're very concerned that it won't drain quickly enough and the water will become too heavy for the roof to hold. We're sitting on pins and needles."

The storm forced the evacuation of about 3,000 state inmates and about 500 patients at more than a dozen hospitals.

Gas pumps were dry at most stations as people rushed to fill up their tanks, but Bush said state officials were working to resupply stations along Florida's Turnpike. Fees were waived on most of the state's toll roads.

Frances' arrival is just three weeks after another devastating storm, Hurricane Charley, killed 27 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. Charley came ashore on Florida's West Coast and moving across the state.

Some evacuees, frustrated by Frances' sluggish pace, decided to leave shelters Saturday and return later. But most, like the Hamiltons in Jensen Beach, were stuck inside until Frances moves out of the area.

But there were signs of hope, even if they could only be viewed through small peepholes drilled into the hurricane shutters.

"There are trees down, but my petunias still have little flowers on top," Petera Hamilton said. "So I feel pretty good about that."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. E-mail

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