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Frances downgraded upon Fla. approach

Forecasters downgraded Hurricane Frances to a Category 2 storm last night but warned Floridians not to take the storm lightly as concerns shifted from high winds to torrential rains and flooding.

"This is good news, but don't let your guard down. This is still a formidable hurricane," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center near Miami. "The wind field is really spreading out, and I can assure you this will have an impact on Central Florida."

More than 2.5 million residents were told to leave their homes, the largest evacuation in Florida's history. For them and the millions who stayed behind, the hurricane's delayed arrival meant another day of anxious waiting.

"It seems like it's been going on for a week," said John Mafera, a 28-year-old aviation consultant in south Brevard County. "You just want to get it over with and see what needs to be done."

Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for the entire state. A hurricane warning remained in effect for Florida's eastern coast, beginning 30 miles north of Daytona Beach and extending almost to the state's southern tip.

Last night, Frances was centered about 200 miles southeast of Palm Beach. High winds buffeted the coast, and utilities said up to 170,000 customers lost power.

Late yesterday, Frances's top sustained winds had dropped to 105 miles per hour. It was projected to make landfall in Florida this afternoon just north of Fort Pierce, but the storm remains so large that forecasters expected Central Floridians to begin to feel tropical-force winds of nearly 40 miles per hour this morning.

The hurricane churned slowly towards Florida after hitting the Bahamas, but forecasters warned it could strengthen again.

Frances battered the main tourist hub in the Bahamas yesterday, unleashing powerful winds that ripped apart roofs and shattered windows in highrises. The storm's power prompted thousands to flee, and one man was electrocuted.

Frances has the potential to drop an average of 9 to 10 inches of rain in Florida and up to 20 inches in some spots, which would cause major flooding of roads and low-lying areas. The storm's slow speed means coastal areas could experience hurricane-force winds of about 75 miles per hour and higher for 12 hours or longer.

Last night's forecast brought the eye of the storm south of Orlando.

But because the highest winds are at the northeastern side of the storm, Central Florida would still take a beating as Frances crosses the state, said state meteorologist Ben Nelson.

Nelson said Frances could remain over the state for two cycles of high tide, creating two rounds of 5- to 10-foot storm surges.

FEMA officials said more than 4,000 emergency workers -- three times the number for Hurricane Charley -- are poised the come to Florida after the storm comes through. The American Red Cross planned a larger relief operation than the one it conducted after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Then, the agency spent $81 million.

Throughout the state, emergency officials prepared for the rising waters that Frances is expected to bring. Orange County urged residents in low-lying areas to head for higher ground. In Seminole County, deputies with loud speakers drove through neighborhoods urging people to flee.

In Fort Pierce, the hurricane's delayed arrival gave people an extra shot at last-minute preparations, but it didn't last long. By early afternoon, the .rst bands of Frances began to pelt the coastal city with hard rain and growing winds.

By late afternoon, virtually all businesses were closed and there was little traffic on the roads other than police cruisers. In the early evening, US Highway 1, the main north-south route through the town, was deserted, and large pools of storm water formed.

Many Central Florida businesses were shutting their doors by yesterday afternoon. Most major retailers planned to remain closed today and possibly tomorrow, depending on the storm's severity.

Many schools and government offices closed, as did amusement parks, the Kennedy Space Center, and airports serving Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Melbourne.

In Vero Beach last night, nearly every store, restaurant and gas station was closed and boarded up.

One store had spray-painted messages in large letters across the plywood. "Hurricane Frances," said one. "I hate you!!!" The threat comes three weeks after Hurricane Charley killed 27 people and caused billions of dollars in damage in southwestern Florida.

At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, President Bush spoke of another potential round of devastation for Florida. "I've ordered teams to be in position to help the good people of that state," he said.

"But the best thing we can do here is to offer our prayers."

For the most part, evacuees seemed to be adapting calmly to spending Labor Day weekend in shelters. Nancy Syphax said the mood was good at an elementary school in Jensen Beach where people were seeking shelter. "This is a necessary precaution," she said.

"I'd rather be safe than comfortable at this moment."

In Nassau yesterday morning, Kenrad Delaney, 18, was electrocuted while filling a generator with diesel fuel, police said.

Gusts of 84 miles per hour whipped through the city streets, and downpours already were pelting the city of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, where emergency administrator Alexander E. Williams said about 600 people had checked in to shelters.

Hurricane season usually peaks in early September, and the ninth named storm of the season formed yesterday in the far eastern Atlantic. Tropical Storm Ivan was about 865 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands with winds of 50 miles per hour.

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