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Frances hammers Fla.

Winds of up to 90 mph rake coast; 2 million left without electricity

FORT PIERCE, Fla. -- Potent but slow-moving Hurricane Frances snapped power lines and whipped the Atlantic coast with winds exceeding 90 miles per hour yesterday, knocking out electricity for about 2 million Floridians and forcing millions to endure another day of waiting and worrying.

The wind uprooted trees and peeled off roofs; coastal waters resembled a churning hot tub.

The storm's slow-motion assault -- Frances crawled toward Florida at 5 miles per hour before stalling over warm water -- arrived more than a day later than predicted. The eye of the storm was not expected to hit east-central Florida until early today.

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

Storm expected to have limited effect on New England. A26.

Frances arrived three weeks after Hurricane Charley killed 27 people and caused billions of dollars in damage in southwestern Florida.

For some Floridians, the second storm could not arrive soon enough. "I just want it to be quick. Just get it over with," said Woodeline Jadis, 20, weary from waiting at a shelter in Orlando.

Yesterday evening, Frances was centered about 60 miles east of Palm Beach and moving to the west-northwest. The storm had redeveloped an eye about 70 miles across, indicating that it could strengthen slightly while over warm open water between the Bahamas and the coast, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said. Hurricane-force wind extended outward up to 105 miles from its center.

Once the storm makes land, it will take 12 to 15 hours to cross the peninsula, the hurricane center said. Frances was expected to push across the state as a tropical storm just north of Tampa, weaken to a tropical depression and drench the Panhandle today before moving into Alabama.

The storm's leading edge reached the Florida coast early yesterday, and about 300 miles of coastline remained under a hurricane warning. Frances was so big that virtually the entire state feared damage from wind and the more than foot of rain that forecasters said was possible.

"This is going to be a tough ride for us over the next few days," Governor Jeb Bush said.

The largest evacuation in state history, with 2.8 million residents ordered inland, sent 70,000 residents and tourists into shelters. The storm shut down much of Florida, including airports and amusement parks, at the start of the usually busy Labor Day weekend.

Some evacuees, frustrated by Frances' sluggish pace, decided to leave shelters yesterday and return later.

Deborah Nicholas dashed home from a Fort Pierce shelter to take a shower, but stayed only a few minutes when the lights started flickering and trees began popping out of the ground. She has slept in a deck chair at a high school cafeteria since Wednesday.

"I'm going stir-crazy," Nicholas said. "I'm going to be in a straitjacket by Monday. I don't know how much longer I can take it. Have mercy."

Ron and Virginia Pastuch went home after spending two days at a Palm Bay shelter. Pastuch said he had never been in a shelter before. "It's the first time, and the last time, too," he said.

Residents could take comfort that Frances weakened as it lingered off the coast. Forecasters downgraded it to a Category 2 hurricane as sustained winds receded from the 145-mile-per-hour mark reached earlier. The rain forecast was less ominous than the 20 inches first feared, but still enough to cause widespread flooding.

Wind gusts reached 91 miles per hour at Jupiter Inlet north of West Palm Beach. Florida Power & Light pulled crews off the streets because of heavy wind, meaning hundreds of thousands of customers would have to wait for power until the storm subsided.

Roads, streets, and beaches were mostly deserted -- the occasional surfer notwithstanding. Roads were littered with palm fronds and other debris. Businesses were shuttered and gas stations were closed, their empty pumps covered with shrink wrap.

Not everyone stayed home: Two men were charged with looting for trying to break into a Brevard County church.

As the weather worsened, a yacht adrift on the Intercoastal Waterway struggled for more than half an hour in choppy water to anchor in West Palm Beach before tying up to a dock. Other boats bobbed like toys. The roof and a door were blown off a hangar at Palm Beach International Airport.

Kevin Palmer, a photographer in Palm Beach County, said the wind blew so hard at his front door that it was making the copper weather stripping around it vibrate and shriek violently.

"It's become our high-gust alarm," Palmer said.

"It sets the tone for your ambience when you've got the rumbling outside, you have this screeching from the weather stripping and you keep wondering if that thumping you just heard is another tree going over or a coconut going flying."

Frances ripped apart roofs, shattered windows, and flooded neighborhoods as it raged through the Bahamas yesterday, driving thousands from their homes before beginning a slow march toward the east coast of Florida. At least one man was electrocuted in the storm.

The slower-than-expected movement meant a long ordeal for Bahamians. Roaring winds blew down trees and toppled power lines, knocking out electricity. Buildings trembled, palms bent in violent gusts, and street signs flew off poles.

Surging seawater flooded at least three neighborhoods in the Freeport area on Grand Bahama Island, emergency administrator Alexander E. Williams said. "We're hearing reports of flooding all over. We're trying to move people to safety."

The Freeport airport was partly submerged in water, which in some places reached as high as the sign posts.

The ninth named storm of the season grew stronger yesterday in the far eastern Atlantic. Tropical Storm Ivan was about 1,575 miles east-southeast of the Lesser Antilles with winds of 60 miles per hour.

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