Florida's year of the hurricanes

2004 is already one of the costliest seasons ever.

Hurricane Frances is the storm that took forever to get here. And then once it was here, it took forever to leave. The massive, lumbering hurricane - covering an area the size of Texas - made landfall here early Sunday morning after stalling over the Bahamas and then once again offshore.

Now beleaguered Florida residents are emerging after enduring nearly three days of violently wet and windy weather as tropical storm Frances heads north into Alabama and Tennessee packing torrential rains.

But even as the remnants of hurricane Frances still sweep across Florida's skies, weary survivors are keeping a close watch on yet another major hurricane - Ivan, which strengthened from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane in a single day.

The back-to-back wallops of Charley and Frances - coupled with the potential for more hurricanes this year - are cementing this as one of the most damaging storm seasons in Florida history.

Frances, to be sure, could have been far worse. Only two deaths were attributed to the hurricane in its immediate aftermath. But the breadth of storm - covering almost the entire length of the state, which meteorologists say is virtually unprecedented - affected almost every resident in some way. Like Charley, it hit interior sections of the state as well as coastal areas, magnifying the challenge of the cleanup and rebuilding to follow.

Moreover, the storm struck on the busy Labor Day weekend, adding to losses in the $53 billion tourist industry. It also damaged more of the state's citrus crop, already hit hard by Charley.

"Americans want to get back to normal as soon as possible," says Jeff Krauskopf, mayor of Stuart, Fla. He says in the aftermath of Frances, relief and recovery workers have an additional incentive to achieve fast results. "We are trying to pick up before Ivan shows up," he says.

Assessing the damage

Hurricane Frances downed branches and trees, harassed mobile-home parks, swamped boats, flooded low-lying areas, and stripped young fruit from the state's citrus groves. It also closed airports and coastal hotels statewide and even sent Mickey Mouse into a hurricane shelter for the second time in three weeks, though Disney World officials report no major damage to the Orlando tourist attraction.

The huge storm left no corner of the state unaffected. Powerful bands of wind and rain circulated around a 40-mile-wide "eye," forcing 2.5 million residents of Florida's east coast to flee inland - the largest evacuation in state history. It also forced tens of millions of other residents to board up their homes and wait - for what seemed an eternity - for the storm to arrive and depart.

Combined with hurricane Charley, which struck Aug. 13 with winds of 140 miles per hour, the two storms together left an "X" of destruction across central Florida. Yet hurricane Frances was many times larger than Charley, and only days ago was classified as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane. But high-level winds buffeted the storm while it moved slowly over the Bahamas, causing it to become less organized and weaker. Instead of 140-mile-per-hour winds, by the time Frances made landfall its sustained winds were 90 to 100 miles per hour.

The combination of lower wind speed and extensive pre-storm preparation by home and business owners is being credited with substantially reducing the level of destruction.

Nonetheless, state and federal officials - anticipating the worst from Frances - have undertaken what some describe as the most extensive disaster relief effort ever attempted. Hundreds of out-of-state utility trucks were pre-positioned at the Florida-Georgia border awaiting lower wind speeds on Monday before they could begin efforts to help local power crews restore electricity to nearly 6 million people. Truckloads of ice and water have also been prepositioned to ease deployment to the hardest-hit areas. Some 8,000 members of the National Guard have been assigned to aid in the recovery and help prevent looting.

Longer term, experts predict the state will rebound - even thrive - economically. While natural disasters usually cause significant short-term losses, the boom in construction and industries for years afterward often lift the overall economy.

Less certain is what the psychological impact of a forceful hurricane season might be. Some residents, weary after two storms in three weeks, were talking of leaving the state altogether. But others are expressing resilience.

One town's saga

Stuart, where the center of the storm first came ashore, lost a large number of trees, building awnings, and traffic lights. A local hospital and a public-safety building sustained some damage. And a new boardwalk extending along the city's downtown Riverwalk park was reduced to a soggy pile of lumber.

But Stuart officials say they felt fortunate, particularly since there was no loss of life.

In most hurricanes, the point at which the center of the storm makes landfall is also the place where the most powerful winds converge to cause the most extensive damage. But that dynamic does not appear to apply to hurricane Frances.

Because of the large size of the eye and slow forward movement of the storm, Stuart area residents gained the benefit of four to six hours of calm at the center of the storm as the eye passed over them. In contrast, 20 miles to the north and 20 miles to the south, coastal communities were enduring a continuous battering.

For residents who had hunkered down for a day or more waiting for Frances to arrive, the prospect of a few hours of calm, clear weather was too much for some to resist. "It was just all of a sudden dead quiet - no wind," says Donald Williamson, who rode out the storm with a group of friends at a boarded-up ceramics shop in downtown Stuart.

Although hurricane experts warn against venturing out midway through a storm, Mr. Williamson and his friends used the opportunity for a quick jog through the downtown area. "It was silent and dark," he says. "Like a ghost town."

Mark Alberti, who lives five houses from the St. Lucie River, says he used the period of calm to walk down to the river's edge and monitor his greatest fear - rising water. The four- to six-foot storm surge did not threaten his house.

Mr. Alberti says the worst aspect of the storm wasn't the wind or waves, but the waiting. "It took forever. This storm was so slow," he says. "It was nice when the eye came through because it gave us a change to get out of the house."

Not everyone had an opportunity to experience the eye. Felix George was outside walking through much of the first part of the hurricane, trying to get to his mother's apartment across town. By the time he arrived, he was exhausted.

"It was kind of darkly beautiful," he says of his dangerous trek. "I only did it because I was worried about my mom."

His grateful mother survived the storm with only a minor roof leak. As for Mr. George, he has no memory of the eye of the storm or even the second half of the hurricane. "I slept through the whole thing," he says.

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