KISSIMMEE, Fla., Sept. 27 -- Hurricane Jeanne's rains dumped about 166 billion gallons of water on three counties in central Florida, and as far as Anna Marie Amidon, 81, was concerned on Monday, it might have all fallen directly on her.
The Sunshine State is now the Saturated Sponge State. Three previous hurricanes in the past six weeks left Florida so soggy that reservoirs cannot absorb more water. Officials predicted that much of the drenching Jeanne delivered will probably drain into places such as Kissimmee, especially into low-lying areas such as the Good Samaritan retirement complex, where Amidon lives.
Jeanne Batters Florida: Hurricane Jeanne is the fourth hurricane to hit Florida this year, tracing almost the same course as Hurricane Frances followed.
Jeanne, the fourth hurricane to pummel the state this year, was downgraded Monday to a tropical depression, spreading rain in Georgia and spawning tornadoes in the Carolinas. High winds in Southern Pines, N.C., damaged 100 buildings and flipped vehicles, the Associated Press reported. President Bush declared 26 Florida counties disaster areas and late Monday asked Congress for more than $7.1 billion in aid. About 2.5 million people were still without electricity.
People began lining up for food and water, and clearing debris from ravaged homes.
For Amidon and the 1,500 residents of Good Samaritan, however, a new nightmare is about to begin. Enough water to fill about 11 million family-size swimming pools is headed their way.
Serene but implacable, the water has begun to rise at Good Samaritan. Near Scotland Road, where Amidon lives, only about six inches of the top of an orange traffic cone was visible Monday afternoon. Palm trees appeared to be growing out of lakes. Dislodged debris from previous storms floated down streets. Pickup trucks left wakes like speedboats. Eddies and currents formed around islands of lawn. Birds with delicate legs prowled the water's edge, looking for lunch.
Officials predicted that the retirees at the complex would have to be evacuated -- again. Rising waters after Hurricane Frances prompted a mass evacuation, including all the people in the nursing home. It took hours to move the patients with oxygen masks. Now, everyone will probably have to leave once more.
"We don't want panic, but we want people to be realistic," said Bill Graf of the South Florida Water Management District, the agency responsible for flood control. "Even though it's blue skies out there, the water will continue to rise."
Elsewhere in the state, hour-long traffic jams formed on the fringes of coastal towns as residents streamed back into low-lying areas they fled in advance of Jeanne. Once-beautiful yachts, now the stuff of insurance investigators and salvage men, lay half-submerged in the swollen St. Lucie River. Residents cooked meals on camping stoves next to smashed cars.
"Six weeks ago, it was paradise," said Armand Pasquale, 64, who owns a 25-unit apartment building in Stuart.
The National Hurricane Center projected that the storm would cross North Carolina and the southeast tip of Virginia late Tuesday before slipping into the Atlantic early Wednesday. Jeanne has slowed, but could speed up as it curves northeast.
Florida Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings (R) arrived at Osceola County to say the state felt the pain of Amidon and other residents. But the flooding problem is not restricted to this area, and the situation might be worse in the north.
"I hear flooding has been a problem in this area and will continue to be," Jennings said. In Seminole County to the north, she said that lakes and ponds were overflowing and flooding towns. "Lake Monroe has decided to keep flowing through Sanford," she said.
Osceola County Chairman Ken Shipley spoke bluntly to Jennings: "The only thing I can suggest is keep the pocketbook open. Send cash."