MIAMI — Three weeks ago as hurricane Charley churned its way up Florida's west coast, many residents of Punta Gorda believed predictions that the storm would pass by and slam into Tampa.
It didn't. When it suddenly veered toward Charlotte Harbor, Donna Sheridan had less than 30 minutes to try to nail a few boards over her windows. She finally gave up. "We got pillows and blankets and jumped in the hallway there, and prayed to God," she says.
Today, millions of residents along Florida's heavily developed east coast are facing a similar situation as hurricane Frances - a major Category 4 storm, more than twice the size of Charley - pounds the Bahamas and draws ever closer to an expected Florida landfall on Saturday.
Unlike expectations for Charley, hurricane experts this time are stressing that predictions about the storm's possible movements are rough approximations. They advise residents to ignore the single line on National Hurricane Center graphics showing the forecaster's best estimate of where the most destructive core of the storm may go. Instead, they tell residents to pay attention to the much wider "cone" of potential impact that can stretch out hundreds of miles.
Yet many hurricane experts stress that death and destruction are not inevitable consequences of a hurricane. Lives and property can be effectively protected with a few basic preparations. But the trick, they say, is persuading those potentially in the path to take the necessary precautions.
"Hurricane Charley is a good example," Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Pinellas said at a press conference. "Anywhere in that cone we have to be prepared as if there would be a direct strike."
Hurricane Charley made landfall roughly 80 miles south of Tampa, far enough away that Tampa residents never even felt hurricane-force winds. In contrast, hurricane Frances is so large that hurricane-force winds extend 80 miles out from the eye, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Experts say the potential damage and cost of recovery will depend to a large extent on where the hurricane makes landfall. The worst scenario, these experts say, would be for the storm to strike along the densely populated southeast coast from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach.
"A hit at that location would be something major ... really, really big," says Bill Bailey of the Insurance Information Institute.
If hurricane Frances makes landfall in Florida, it will mark the first time in more than 50 years that two major hurricanes have struck the state within a short period of time. Nonetheless, Mr. Bailey says the insurance industry is prepared. "We have known this would happen to us," he says. "We have talked about the double whammy."
State relief officials echo Bailey's can-do approach - even in the face of a massive storm like Frances. Liz Compton, a spokeswoman at Florida's Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, says state, local, and federal officials have planned and trained for multiple disasters. "We have to deal with it," she says. "Resources are still going to hurricane Charley victims, and we will gear up resources as we need them for hurricane Frances."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also poised to draw on its national resources to bridge any gaps. "While this is certainly going to be a challenge, we are not anticipating any extreme taxation of our limits," says FEMA spokesman Eugene Brezany.
Where and how the storm hits may also have political implications in a key presidential battleground state. Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, viewed the ongoing hurricane Charley relief efforts as important enough to cancel his planned trip to the Republican National Convention in New York City.
"Had Jeb Bush not done well [in the aftermath of Charley], I can assure you it would have damaged his brother," says Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
A Gallup poll conducted last week showed 76 percent of Florida residents believed Governor Bush was doing a good job in the hurricane relief effort. But that favorable view did not appear to translate into gains for President Bush, who remains in a statistical tie in Florida with Democratic challenger John Kerry.
Ms. McManus says Florida voters will probably grant "a bit of forgiveness" to the governor and president in dealing with the aftermath of hurricane Frances. "The bottom line here," she says, "is most people understand the absolute chaos that it creates to have two storms of this magnitude hit the state of Florida."