Hurricane Frances took its time Saturday, brutally pawing at Florida's east coast with potent gusts to preview its might but holding back its full rage for what is expected to be a long, slow trudge across the state on Sunday.
The storm's eye is so huge -- a staggering 60 miles in diameter -- and its 4-mph speed is so slow that forecasters were invoking the word "marathon" to describe the ordeal that much of Florida is about to endure. Already, using only its outer bands, Frances has shown itself to be a frighteningly fierce hurricane. It has left 2 million people in Florida without power, toppled trees, shredded roofs and lifted boats out of the water. An additional 10,000 people are stuck in the open sea on cruise ships because captains have decided not to risk coming to port in Miami.
The storm dallied off the Florida coast after inflicting heavy damage on the Bahamas. At least two storm-related deaths and one missing person have been reported in the 700-island chain, about 50 miles east of Florida. Rescuers plucked people from floodwaters on Grand Bahama Island.
The opening volleys of Frances's assault on Florida featured 90-mph wind blasts. The hurricane is projected to kick up the volume with 105-mph winds as it reaches shore. But Frances's winds are not what makes emergency officials quake; it is the storm's oppressive wetness that inspires fear.
"Floodwaters can be an incredibly powerful phenomenon," said Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "This water can pick up SUVs and move them a hundred feet. They're killers."
The storm, expected to make landfall near Jupiter, north of West Palm Beach, is projected to cross the state Sunday and linger for hours over areas that were drenched by Hurricane Charley three weeks ago. Since Monday, Florida water-management crews have been pumping millions of gallons of water per hour out of lakes and canals already above normal levels and, in some cases, at the point of overflowing.
Still, that might not be enough to prevent heavy flooding because the ground in large chunks of the state is saturated, particularly south of Orlando.
The arrival for duty of thousands of National Guard troops, utility workers, rescue team members and law enforcement officers -- many awaiting the storm in neighboring states -- could be delayed because of standing water on roadways, state and federal officials warned.
"People need to be patient," Brown said.
The winds crashing through Florida on Saturday damaged some of the United States' most exclusive real estate. Australian pines popped out of the ground along the roads near Jupiter Island, which has the most expensive Zip code in the country, where the median home price was $5.6 million in 2002. Street lights seemed to dance under the force of the gusts. Near Burt Reynolds Park, in Jupiter, canal waters rose above docks and lapped at the front doors of pricey condominiums. Nevertheless, cars trickled down U.S. 1, toward danger.
Just to the south, in Juno Beach, hundreds of trees and some streetlights were already down by early afternoon. A traffic light in Palm Beach Gardens along PGA Boulevard lost its electrical connection and spun in the wind. The fierce winds near the ocean blew the rain horizontally through the air. Along the inlet between the mainland and nearby Singer Island, the wind was blowing the water with such force that a five-foot cloud of spray covered the lagoon like steam from a kettle.
The worst in human nature prompted a pre-landfall curfew. Palm Beach County Sheriff Edward W. Bieluch said several attempted burglaries led to arrests Friday night and Saturday morning, raising the prospect of looting after the storm.
"These types of jackals are out there," Bieluch said. "It's one of the worst kinds of humankind there is."
A local judge ordered all looters held without bond in Brevard County, where Melbourne -- another town expected to take a hard blow from Frances -- is located.
Entire cities were without power. West Palm Beach Mayor Lois J. Frankel said that "just about everyone" in her city has lost power. Florida is under the largest evacuation order in its history, affecting 2.8 million people. Although it is unclear how many people heeded the order, shelters were filling to capacity. Officials said more than 71,000 people were living in public hurricane shelters Saturday night, including thousands who have been there since Charley battered the state's west coast, causing $7 billion in damage and killing 27 people.
Holdouts were everywhere, refusing to leave homes in low-lying beach towns from Melbourne to Miami, in the south, where Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas threatened swift legal action after learning that some Miami Beach hotels were ordering employees to return to the party zones of South Beach, still under a mandatory evacuation.
The stubborn refusal to leave an evacuation zone could almost be called the Sanibel-factor in parts of the state, a reference to the residents of Sanibel Island who angrily complained when authorities kept them from returning to their island homes for days after Charley. On Vero Beach, many homeowners said they feared the same fate would befall them if they left -- so they stayed.
Although no arrests have been reported on the barrier island, four men were arrested on the Vero Beach mainland during the first night of curfew on burglary-related charges. Two Tampa men were arrested after they allegedly pried open a hurricane shutter and attempted to enter a house, and two Davenport men were arrested in the business district on burglary charges.
Along the oceanfront an hour before high tide, the pounding surf had erased all signs of beach and had clawed its way up into the edge of the dunes -- a harbinger of things to come when Frances drives an expected five- to six-foot tidal surge at 2 a.m. Sunday.
On the mainland side of Vero Beach, water was already up to the curb in low-lying areas by midday Saturday, even though the steady, heavy rains -- forecast to be as many as 20 inches in Indian River County -- had not begun.
Roig-Franzia reported from Miami Beach. Special correspondents Milton R. Benjamin in Vero Beach and Catharine Skipp in South Miami contributed to this report.