Erin Pounds Central Florida, But Lacks Severe Punch of Andrew
VERO BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Erin sank two ships off the Atlantic Coast today as it roared across central Florida along a northerly track that caught many people by surprise.
Much of the region was battered by wind and sheets of rain, and more than 600,000 customers were reported without electricity.
``It’s unreal!″ said a sopping wet Marv Thiel, 36, of Kaukauna, Wis., standing in the darkened hallway of a Vero Beach hotel. ``Spectacular.″
However, the storm lacked the fury of Andrew three years ago and there were no immediate reports of serious damage or injury on land. Hundreds of thousands of people with strong memories of Andrew had fled inland in southern Florida.
After moving over land, it weakened, with sustained wind down to 60 mph, and was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. At its peak, Erin packed sustained wind of 85 mph with gusts to 100 mph.
The 234-foot gambling ship Club Royale, sent to sea to ride out the storm, sank today about 90 miles east of Port Canaveral.
Crews of Coast Guard helicopters hoisted four of the ship’s sailors to safety from life rafts this afternoon, one was picked up by another ship and seven others were waiting in the rafts, Coast Guard officials said.
A tug boat sank today in 15-foot waves 60 miles off the coast of Georgia as Erin’s outer winds thrashed the sea. The five crew members got into a life raft and were rescued unharmed by Coast Guard helicopter, said Coast Guard Seaman Caleb Martin.
In the Bahamas, Erin ripped boats from their moorings and caused extensive damage to orchards of bananas, avocados and mangoes. Heavy rain fell in the storm’s outer fringes in Jamaica, where a plane crash killed five people.
Statewide, some 14,000 people spent the night in 200 shelters, state emergency management officials said today. Several hours before the storm hit, a 72-year-old woman died of a heart attack in a shelter at Tampa.
By 2 p.m. EDT, Erin had crossed the state and was over the Gulf of Mexico, centered near 28.6 north latitude and 83.4 west longitude or about 45 miles south-southwest of Cedar Key, which is 75 miles north of Tampa. It was moving to the west-northwest at about 17 mph with steady wind blowing near 60 mph, a slight increase from late morning.
All hurricane warnings were discontinued for the Atlantic Coast but tropical storm warnings remained in effect for much of Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The storm could brush the Apalachicola area as early as tonight, and a tropical storm watch was posted for the coasts of Alabama and Mississippi, forecasters said.
Only 2 inches of rain fell at Erin’s landfall in Vero Beach, with much less to the south, largely eliminating flood risks. As much as 5 to 10 inches had been predicted.
Widespread power outages in central Florida left 500,000 people without electricity and Florida Power & Light spokesman Ray Golden said it could take several days to repair the downed lines.
The worst-hit area was Brevard County, NASA’s home, where nearly 5 inches of rain fell, 350,000 people were without power and 3,500 people took refuge in shelters, said utility and evacuation officials. Lesser damage was in St. Lucie and Martin counties to the south, where 2,800 spent the night in shelters.
The space center itself got off relatively lightly.
``About the only thing we had was some exterior corrugated steel got ripped off the vehicle assembly building and that was it,″ said Dave Flowers, NASA test director. Space shuttle Endeavour had been moved to a hangar as a precaution.
Walt Disney World had ``very minor problems, trees down, that sort of thing, but nothing that impacts any major part of the park,″ said spokesman Bill Warren. The normal opening time of 9 a.m. was delayed to 11 a.m.
In Kissimmee, gateway to Disney World, 80 children were among 260 people who spent the night in the cafeteria of Osceola High School.
``They had a clown come in, and I think that took the wind out of them,″ said chemistry teacher James Perlmutter.
Erin moved farther north than was earlier expected, and late Tuesday authorities lifted an evacuation warning for 400,000 people in Dade County, which includes Miami and Homestead, the city to the south that was pulverized by Andrew’s sustained winds of 145 mph in 1992. Andrew was the nation’s costliest natural disaster with $30 billion in damage.
Miami was the original focus of forecasts. The track through Vero Beach came with less than 12 hours to prepare.
Supermarkets and gas stations were jammed with residents and tourists caught by surprise at Erin’s northerly path, replaying the scenes of panicked preparation that took place a day earlier in Miami.
Some got caught in Erin’s switch in course.
``When we left, they said it was going to hit Miami,″ said Paul Lazeau, one of three charter boat captains who thought they were beating Hurricane Erin by heading north from Palm Beach County. ``We got here and they said it looks like it’s going to be Fort Pierce.″
Caught by surprise, many residents of central Florida left without preparing their homes for the storm, Vero Beach Police Chief Jim Gabbard said.
``Maybe a third of the places were boarded up,″ he said.