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Frances Plows Into Florida’s Panhandle

September 6, 2004

ST. MARKS, Fla. (AP) _ Frances crowded into the Florida Panhandle on Monday, taking another swing at a storm-weary state where it already had knocked out power to 6 million people, torn up roofs and boats and been blamed for at least four deaths.

While Panhandle residents rode out the tropical storm’s heavy rain and wind blowing at a sustained 65 mph, shutters started coming down in the south and residents started returning to homes they had evacuated.

The return revealed fresh hardship as motorists waited for gasoline in queues that stretched more than 200 cars long, and others stood in enormous lines to get water, ice and other basic supplies.

``We really hope to get ice and everything else. We don’t know what they have in there,″ said Christine Bland, standing in line with about 1,500 other people at a Wal-Mart in Palm Beach County. Up the coast in Fort Pierce, hundreds of people stood in a line with buckets and ice chests on a sunny, steamy afternoon.

The core of the storm, once a powerful Category 4 hurricane before it slowed somewhat, slammed into the state’s Atlantic coast early Sunday. After crossing the state and a corner of the Gulf of Mexico, it made its second Florida landfall at St. Marks, 20 miles south of Tallahassee, early Monday afternoon. At 2 p.m. EDT, Frances had maximum sustained wind near 65 mph.

Forecasters said Frances could bring up to 10 inches of rain and a five- to 10-foot storm surge to the Panhandle. Four coastal counties ordered evacuations.

Linda Sellars worried about her property as she and her husband retreated inland from their home on a spit of land that sticks out into the gulf near Panacea.

``I worked the last three weeks in the yard,″ she said. ``I’m going to be really upset if it blows my yard away.″

Streets were deserted in the Panhandle town of Apalachicola, where most businesses closed and some boarded up.

The storm’s wind and low pressure had sucked water out to sea away from the Big Bend, Florida’s elbow where the peninsula joins the Panhandle.

``There was no water on the gulf along the Taylor County coastline as far as you could see,″ county emergency management director Roy Woods said.

Frances was moving north-northwest at about 8 mph, forecasters said, and bound for Georgia and Alabama.

``You can tell it’s getting very close _ there’s lots of rain, lots of wind now,″ said Penny Bolin, executive director of the Red Cross chapter in Albany, Ga. ``What we’re concerned most about is flooding _ we’re expecting large amounts of rainfall.″

But while Frances was heading out of Florida, residents had started keeping a wary eye on yet another storm. Ivan, the fifth hurricane of the year, had sustained wind of 125 mph and was centered 435 miles east-southeast of Barbados in the central Atlantic. Forecasters weren’t sure whether it would hit the United States, but Floridians are fed up after contending with Hurricanes Frances and Charley over the past month.

``This is ridiculous,″ Anne Bruno said as flooding forced her onto a detour as she tried to drive back to Palm Bay from Sebring. ``And we got another one coming? I’m staying home. No money, no gas and stuck inside with a mother-in-law for four days _ no way.″

At a Florida Turnpike rest stop in West Palm Beach _ one of the few places in the area with gas and power _ more than 200 motorists northbound and 100 southbound waited in line to fill up.

Airports in Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach resumed operation. As of midday, nearly 80,000 people remained in shelters, down from about 108,000 on Sunday. The largest evacuation in state history had affected 47 of Florida’s 67 counties.

Cruise ships arrived belatedly at the Port of Miami after staying at sea to avoid the storm and extending their passengers’ voyages. The Postal Service played catchup by delivering mail on Labor Day. Some schools made preparation for classes after serving as shelters during the weekend.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was prepared to distribute 1.5 million gallons of water and 1 million meals.

One risk-assessment company estimated insured losses from Frances could range from $2 billion to $10 billion. A state official said damage could have been worse.

``If it’s the same all the way across, we’re looking at a couple of billion dollars rather than the big numbers we were seeing earlier,″ state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher said.

Frances had charged into Florida’s east coast early Sunday with wind roaring at 115 mph and more than 13 inches of rain, stripping away roofs, smashing boats, eroding away a chunk of I-95 and flooding West Palm Beach streets up to four feet deep.

Frances also ripped an estimated 1,000 exterior panels from NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. It was the worst hurricane damage to ever strike the space center, officials said.

At Daytona Beach, still recovering from Hurricane Charley three weeks ago, Frances tore roofing off the Peabody Auditorium, where the London Symphony Orchestra appears each year, and destroyed a sign advertising ``The World’s Most Famous Beach.″

The storm’s core angled across Florida to enter the gulf north of Tampa, its path crossing some of the area hit by Charley, which killed 27 people in Florida and caused an estimated $7.4 billion in insured damage.

The four deaths blamed on Frances included a grandson and a former son-in-law of Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden, who died in a collision on a rain-slippery highway.

There were two earlier deaths in the Bahamas, where Frances forced thousands from their homes.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Fort Pierce, Jill Barton in West Palm Beach, Vickie Chachere in Tampa, Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Mike Schneider in Orlando and Ron Word in Daytona Beach also contributed to this report.


On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

Florida Emergency Management: http://www.floridadisaster.org