The Weather Channel says it's the size of Texas.
Wanting to see for yourself, you hop on an airplane Friday night and fly into Jacksonville, because this is as close as commercial planes will get to Hurricane Frances. All Florida airports south of Jacksonville have been closed. There are three other passengers on the plane. The attendant says flights out of Jacksonville have been filled to capacity.
He also tells you Frances has been downgraded from a Category 3 hurricane to a Category 2. She has slowed down -- to 6 miles an hour -- and decided to spend a few days in the Bahamas.
And who can blame her?
10 p.m.: Nearly all the stores near the airport are closed. Fast-food joints, drugstores, gas stations -- boarded up.
You find one convenience shop, the Island Food Store, that is open. The bottoms of the shop's windows are protected by plywood; the tops are X-ed with duct tape. You buy a big jug of water and two peanut butter granola bars.
On the way out you meet Phillip Ketrom, who says he's 45ish. He's wearing shorts and a T-shirt, but he's not the stereotypical laid-back Floridian. He's moving fast and he's heading north. A NASA contractor, Ketrom lives in Cocoa Beach, but he packed up the Nissan Sentra earlier in the week and made his way to Jacksonville. The evacuation traffic was so heavy, Ketrom says, it took nearly seven hours to drive 160 miles. He says he's scared. "You can call me a [kitty cat]," he says. "Why take a chance?"
You read a lot about the tough old coots who stay in bars drinking rum and smoking unfiltered Camels, but on this trip you run into plenty of cowboys who are getting out of Dodge.
For one thing, Hurricane Charley blew through Florida just three weeks ago.
"We lost two stores down south," says Island Food Store clerk Jennifer Van Nover, 54. "We've got 13 stores left. Lucky 13. Everybody's taking this one real serious." She says she is closing her store early.
11 p.m.: There's no music on the radio, only weather updates. Squalls have begun hitting South Florida, you are told as you cruise south on Interstate 95. Not choosing his words very carefully, the announcer says the local FEMA office has been flooded. With calls, he adds. You are virtually alone on your side of the road. You see a few cars, a few trucks and a dead armadillo.
Midnight: At the sold-out Renaissance Hotel in St. Augustine, next to the World Golf Hall of Fame, Mike Mitchell, 39, and his girlfriend, Erin Myers, 27, come through the back door with their mutt on a leash. The dog's name is Bogart, Mitchell explains, as in "Don't bogart that joint." The couple has evacuated from Vilano Beach, where Mitchell is a seaside artist. "My art supply store is the ocean," says the long-haired, bearded painter who incorporates flotsam and jetsam in his oeuvre. "I've had too many people tell me to get the hell off the water." He adds, "There's one behind it, too," referring to Tropical Storm Ivan.
He and Myers decided life is too precious to be swept away by Frances, so they loaded their Dodge Dakota with the dog, some paintings and Gracie the cat. "And beer!" Mitchell says happily.
1:30 a.m.: At the Comfort Inn in Elkton, there are just a couple of rooms left. The front desk clerk says she has many customers who are fleeing Frances -- some from as far away as West Palm Beach, 250 miles south. A typewritten note on the pillow from the motel staff says: "The electricity may go out, the hot water may not work, the telephone lines might go down, all events that we have no control over. We must weather this storm as a team. . . . " From the balcony, the wind is soft, the moon is shining and stars sparkle overhead.
Saturday, 5:30 a.m.: You wake to the local and national weather mavens -- who are pretty windy themselves -- saying Frances is about 125 miles east of West Palm Beach. Her winds are clocking in at 105 mph. Hurricane warnings stretch south along Florida's east coast from Flagler Beach to Florida City. The hurricane's eyewall is expected to cut across Florida somewhere near Melbourne. The eyewall is the area surrounding the eye; it's where surface winds are strongest and thunderstorms most dramatic.
Outside, the wind has stiffened. It buffets your Chevrolet Classic rental car now and then.
7 a.m.: Flagler Beach is ghostly empty. A pair of Eyewitness 3 News team trucks are parked near the shore. The waves spank the sand.
John Reid, 65, from nearby Palm Coast, has driven over to see the angry sea for himself. He moved here three years ago from Upstate New York, where he worked for a cheese company. "I'm a little nervous," he says.
It's eerie how everything is boarded shut. Mother's Beachside Liquor in Flagler Beach. Lazy Rayz Beach Emporium in Ormond Beach. Hotels and 7-Elevens and diners and condominium complexes are bandaged with plywood. You are stopped at one point by a cop who asks to see your ID. The buildings are boarded up as protection against looters as well as Frances.
At the Grandview Condo in Daytona Beach Shores, three grizzled men -- two hold drinks, another smokes a cigar -- do a little early morning jawing in the parking lot. The windows of their building are plywooded over, but they are staying the course. Steve Gawroriski, 67, Ed Gill, 48, and Joe Chapman, 57, say they aren't scared of a trifling breeze. "Want a beer?" Gawroriski asks. There is talk of the eyewall on the radio. And of a dry-air trough and wind shears that have weakened Frances. But as the weatherpeople talk, the wind increases and the waves crash against the beaches.
8:45: Sandbags rest against the doors of Ron Jon's legendary surf shop in Cocoa Beach. Dan Rather comes on the radio and suggests that Cocoa Beach may be hit the hardest. Rather has awesome street cred, because as he is speaking, a squall descends on the beach and the rain comes down so hard you can't see to drive. When the storm lets up a little, you high-tail it to Melbourne. This is supposed to be where the eyewall will come through in the next 24 hours or so. They say.
9:45 a.m.: Kurt Gurley, 34, is looking for some hurricanic action also. He is an associate professor of civil and coastal engineering at the University of Florida. And he has brought a 20-member team into the thick of things to test the wind's effects on structures. The crew has three trucks and a trailer carrying the parts of a 40-foot orange tower. They are going to set it up near the beach. "I'm happy it's been downgraded," Gurley says of Frances. Any hurricane that lives up to Frances's initial hype, he says, is just too much of a horror show to even imagine.
11 a.m.: The rain has returned. You stand at Indialantic beach and watch the ocean roil and churn and the sand swirl onto the lonely streets. The horizontal rain pelts your face. There is an excited charge in the air. A dozen or so stalwarts have come just to gaze out into the storm.
Lobsterman and veteran surfer Scotty Mays, 39, grew up here. He hasn't seen waves like these in years. He estimates the wind is blowing at 30 knots and the waves are 15 to 18 feet high. The storm scares him. "I worry about it destroying my boat," he says.
The rain revs up. The winds wail. The skies darken. In the streets nearby, a traffic light falls and shatters. On the bridge to the mainland, two tall silver light poles snap and collapse, crashing on the road. Palm branches fly through the air like witchless broomsticks.
On the radio, emergency officials tell everyone to get off the roads, to go inside, to hunker down for the long haul. Some counties have noon curfews. Others, 2 p.m.
There is a long line at the checkout counter of Joy America Foods in Melbourne. This is the only store open within miles. The shelves are becoming bare. People load up on whatever -- sleeves of salted peanuts, beef jerky, Mountain Dew, 30 racks of Budweiser.
There is talk that the storm is headed straight for here. The man behind the counter says he is only staying open another 45 minutes.
The lights flicker and the electricity goes off. Then comes back on.
A man with gray stubble laughs. "That's not a good sign."
Customers go home. Travelers return to their lodgings. The wind whips the palm trees; the rain is strong and steady. Most folks take the advice of the authorities and hunker down. Waiting for the long night and wondering what Frances will do next.