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Floods, millions without power as Frances creeps across Fla.

FORT PIERCE, Fla. -- Hurricane Frances's wind and water whacked swaths of Florida with fire-hose force yesterday, submerging entire roadways and tearing off rooftops even as the storm weakened and crawled inland with heavy rain in its wake. More than 5 million people lost power.

More than 13 inches of rain fell along Florida's central east coast and caused scattered flooding as a weakened Frances edged across the state toward Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico. It left behind leveled trees and power lines, tangled traffic lights, and beachfront roads littered with coconuts, avocados, and tree limbs.

"I was just waiting for the house to blow down," said Diane Wright, who rode out the storm in a mobile home in Fort Pierce.

Hers didn't. But even shelters weren't spared: The roof at a school housing evacuees was partially blown off.

The storm was blamed for at least one death in Florida; a man was killed when his car hit a tree near Gainesville, and two earlier deaths in the Bahamas, where thousands were forced to leave their homes.

Frances razed several mobile homes and made a mess of marinas, throwing dozens of pleasure boats against the shore or on top of one another.

Initial reports of destruction did not rival the estimated $7.4 billion in insured damage caused by Hurricane Charley in southwest Florida three weeks ago. Frances's path overlapped with some of the area hit by Charley, which killed 27 people. One risk-assessment company estimated insured losses could range from $2 billion to $5 billion.

Officials warned that there could be even greater risks after the storm. "There are still dangers on our streets where the hurricane passed," Governor Jeb Bush said. "Please be patient."

Bush and 20 state and federal emergency officials surveyed the damage as they flew from Tallahassee to West Palm Beach, but the governor said it was too early to assess the extent of the devastation.

President Bush talked to his brother yesterday afternoon to assure Floridians that federal resources were in place to help respond, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

Some 8,000 members of the National Guard were also assigned to recovery efforts. Suspected looters were arrested in Palm Beach, Orange, and Indian River counties.

Once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 miles per hour, Frances slowed and weakened to a Category 2 storm as it neared Florida. Winds receded to a peak of 105 miles per hour before it made landfall at Sewall's Point, north of Palm Beach, around 1 a.m. One gust was clocked at 115 miles per hour.

"We don't know what all of our damage is yet, but we know it could have been a lot worse," Martin County administrator Russ Blackburn said.

By late afternoon yesterday, Frances had been downgraded to a tropical storm, with maximum winds near 70 miles per hour and its center about 20 miles east of Tampa. The storm, which was crawling west-northwest at 10 miles per hour, could regain hurricane strength over the Gulf of Mexico before renewing its plodding advance on the Florida Panhandle.

The storm shut down much of Florida on the traditionally busy Labor Day weekend. The largest evacuation in state history sent 86,000 people to shelters. Airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale reopened, and officials in the two counties told evacuees they could return home.

Miami's airport was crowded with tourists whose vacations were interrupted by Frances. "I think it's a big fuss over nothing," said 35-year-old Geraldine Lamb, who was visiting from London.

New evacuations began in four counties in Florida's Panhandle, where Frances is expected to hit today after crossing the northeast Gulf of Mexico. The most likely location for landfall was St. George Island, forecasters said.

The scope of the enormous storm was evident yesterday as bands of rain and gusty wind extended the length of the state's 430-mile east coast from the Keys to Jacksonville and beyond along the Georgia coast. It was expected to move into the panhandle today, then into Georgia and Alabama.

Northbound Interstate 95 was closed in Palm Beach County because of a washout. Authorities closed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay. In Martin County, 630 evacuees at a school were taken to another shelter when part of the roof blew off, flooding 16 rooms.

Heavy rain transformed some neighborhoods into waterfront property. Roads in Palm Beach County were covered by up to 4 feet of water. Neighbors waded to one another's homes after being shuttered inside for nearly 24 hours.

"All our trees are down and I have a few windows broken, but I don't know what else is flooded because I can't get anywhere," said Carline Cadet, waving at the water covering the streets.

Police blocked access to the county's barrier islands, including Palm Beach and Singer Island, and enforced a 24-hour curfew. Officials said roads were too dangerous for travel.

Some attributed the storm's weakening to answered prayers. Frances forced the cancellation of church services across much of the state, but seven people ventured out to attend a service at Miami Lakes United Methodist Church.

"It's still the Lord's day," the Rev. Mark Caldwell said.

At a mobile home park in north Fort Pierce, Timothy Fellows emerged from the storm and find a neighbor's trailer demolished but only a fence down on his property. "My trailer survived!" Fellows shouted as he walked through his yard. "Because I believe in God. Even my mailbox survived. That tells you something."

Elsewhere in Fort Pierce, a large steel railroad-crossing signal was twisted like a corkscrew. Gas station awnings sat on their sides, blocking the pumps. Downtown streets were crisscrossed with toppled palm trees.

Ramiro Venegas, an itinerant worker from Mexico, said the storm forced him to spend two nights sleeping in a men's bathroom at a Fort Pierce marina. He said he had been staying in his girlfriend's car until she ditched him.

"I'm thirsty, I'm hungry, and I'm soaking wet," Venegas said.

Despite warnings, some evacuees were eager to venture out to inspect their homes.

Gabriela Balderas and her two children left the shelter at West Gate Elementary School in West Palm Beach to see what was left of their mobile home. "We have been waiting so long to leave. They say we might not be able to get home, but we have to try," she said.

Police in the Orlando area said 10 thieves used a stolen car to smash into a store and steal about $10,000 worth of clothing, and two men were arrested as they tried to steal an ATM using a chain saw.

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