Hurricane Frances struck the southeast Bahamas today and moved closer to Florida as hundreds of thousands of residents along the state’s coast prepared to evacuate their homes.
Frances is expected to hit Florida’s east coast by Saturday, less than a month after Hurricane Charley slammed the state’s west coast and caused billions of dollars in damage.
The center of the storm was 80 miles (135 km) southeast of San Salvador Island in the central Bahamas, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center’s advisory at 8 a.m. local time. The storm is about 470 miles east-southeast of Palm Beach, Florida, and moving to the west-northwest at 13 mph.
“The forecast track calls for landfall in southeast or east central Florida in just over 48 hours,” hurricane center meteorologist Jack Beven said in the advisory. “However, … small changes in direction could make a significant difference in the landfall location.”
Hurricane conditions are expected within 36 hours anywhere from Craig Key, in the middle of the Florida Keys, to Flagler Beach, northeast of Orlando.
Frances is a Category 4 storm, one step down from the most powerful hurricane as measured by the five-step Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Category 4 hurricanes, with winds of 131 to 155 mph, cause the ocean to surge by as much as 18 feet (5.5 meters) and are capable of blowing down walls and tearing off roofs, according to the hurricane center.
Less than three weeks after Hurricane Charley hit Florida’s west coast, killing at least 20 people, Florida Governor Jeb Bush declared another statewide emergency. If Frances is still a Category 4 storm when it reaches Florida, it would be the first time since 1915 that two hurricanes of that magnitude hit the U.S. in the same year.
“Hurricane Frances, alone and in combination with the destruction by Hurricane Charley, threatens the state of Florida with a catastrophic disaster,” Bush, a Republican, said in an executive order. Georgia Republican Governor Sonny Perdue also declared a state of emergency yesterday.
U.S. Federal Emergency Management Director Michael Brown said he has been “assured” by President George W. Bush and U.S. Representative Bill Young, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations committee, that adequate funds will be available for the hurricane relief effort.
FEMA has about 3,000 people already in the state to deal with Charley and the agency is “strategically deploying” workers to Georgia, South Carolina and parts of Florida to prepare for Frances’s landfall, Brown said in an interview.
Florida’s Palm Beach, Brevard, Broward and Martin counties issued mandatory evacuation orders for people living on barrier islands or in mobile-home parks starting this afternoon local time. At least seven other counties had also ordered their residents along the coast to leave, said John Jackson, a Florida Emergency Operation Center spokesman.
Broward County issued mandatory evacuations for people living in barrier islands and mobile homes, effective at 2 p.m. today.
“There are about 250,000 people in the evacuation zone,” Judy Sarver, director of public information for Broward County, said in a telephone interview.
Evacuations in Palm Beach County may affect as many as 300,000 residents, said county spokeswoman Beth Ingold-Love, citing county emergency management data. Martin County spokesman Greg Sowell said residents in the county’s 13,400 mobile and manufactured homes and about 7,500 people on the county’s islands have been ordered to leave.
Many of the islands are connected to Florida’s mainland by bridges, which may be shut once winds reach 40 mph because they’re too dangerous to drive on, he said.
A hurricane watch was issued for Florida late last night. Hurricane warnings remained in effect for all of the Bahamas and for the Turks and Caicos Islands.
A warning means hurricane conditions are expected within 24 hours. Frances has already brushed north of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
To contact the reporters on this story:
Heather Langan in London at firstname.lastname@example.org; Jesse Westbrook in Washington at email@example.com.