-- Hurricane Frances lumbered all the way across the Florida peninsula Sunday, dumping more rain over a much larger area than last month's Hurricane Charley -- but carrying a considerably less powerful punch.
After barreling into the Atlantic coast near Stuart early Sunday morning as a 105-mph Category Two hurricane, Frances weakened to a Category One and then to a 70-mph tropical storm as it began an unusually slow trek across central Florida.
But the 400-mile-wide storm still drenched coastal towns and low-lying areas throughout the state with as much as a foot of rain, leaving thousands of homes without roofs and more than 5 million Floridians without power by the time it reached Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico Sunday evening. Forecasters expected Frances, whose winds were down to 65 mph by 11 p.m., to strengthen again as it started crossing the gulf Sunday night before crashing into the Florida Panhandle on Monday night.
The Red Cross had 108,000 people in its emergency shelters Sunday and mobilized 7,000 volunteers for the largest disaster response in its history. President Bush declared a major disaster in 18 Florida counties; Gov. Jeb Bush (R) warned of major gasoline shortages, and several southeast Florida communities ordered residents to boil their water.
Utilities were already sending crews into neighborhoods to restore power Sunday night. But much of the state could be in for some long days without air conditioning, refrigeration or the pumping stations needed to move floodwaters off the land.
"If Hurricane Charley was a first-round heavyweight knockout, Hurricane Frances is turning into a 15-round middleweight fight," said Orange County Chairman Richard Crotty.
Florida's weary residents might have to keep their gloves on. The National Hurricane Center warned Sunday that Hurricane Ivan, a Category Four storm 700 miles east of Barbados, is on track to hit Florida by next week. If nothing else, Jeb Bush noted, the state may be cured of its habit of forgetting the risk of hurricanes.
"Hurricane amnesia -- we don't have that anymore," he mused.
Michael D. Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned that continued rain, widespread flooding, road washouts and electricity blackouts were stranding many relief workers and preventing others from entering storm-ravaged areas. Approximately 3,000 FEMA workers who were helping to clean up after Charley have already been pulled out. But by early this week, Brown estimates that as many as 6,000 FEMA workers should be stationed in Florida to deal with the aftermath of both storms.
Emergency medical crews from New York, Rhode Island and other states were rushed to Florida Sunday, part of a nationwide influx of medical technicians and other experts.
"We're just as frustrated as anyone else trying to get in here," Brown said. "We don't want our responders to become victims."
Frances certainly left an impression: It flattened oak, palm and citrus trees; smashed up mobile homes; overturned boats; propelled sand from beach resorts onto coastal roads; and ripped down traffic lights. Its outer bands sent driving rain and heavy winds as far north as Tallahassee and as far south as the Florida Keys.
In coastal Jupiter, high winds tore down seven of the eight light towers at the minor league baseball stadium that the Florida Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals use for spring training. In rural Yeehaw Junction, a gust knocked First Missionary Baptist Church's steeple through its roof, narrowly missing two dozen residents who had taken shelter. At the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Frances toppled a replica of the rocket that carried the first American into space. In Jensen Beach, it sheared off the roof of a school that the Red Cross was using as a shelter. Palm Beach County officials believe that 31 of their mobile home parks were damaged Sunday. In Flagler Beach, a storm surge washed away part of the popular fishing pier.
In Port St. Lucie, police officer Guy Montgomery weathered the early hours of the storm at home with his wife and three children. At one point, he tried to venture outside to his patrol car, but he decided that discretion was the better part of valor.
"I never heard wind like that in my life," Montgomery recalled. "I ended up going back inside, because it was so windy and dark -- and I was scared."
Frances also contributed to the deaths of two central Florida residents, who were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from their generators. A woman was killed when a tree fell on her mobile home, and there was at least one fatal car accident during the storm. But throughout the state, officials expressed relief that Frances was no Charley, which caused $7 billion in losses and 27 fatalities in Punta Gorda and other southwest Florida towns three weeks ago. Even along the Treasure Coast, where Frances made its first and most powerful appearance, communities such as Stuart, Fort Pierce and Vero Beach were damaged but by no means demolished.
For example, in the center of Vero Beach's seaside shopping area, the 60-year-old Ocean Grill and the 75-year-old Driftwood Inn survived the pounding surf virtually unscathed. The wind pulled the plywood off the front windows of Gusto's Italian Cuisine in downtown Stuart but otherwise left the restaurant alone.
"I expected to come back here and find all my windows broken, the big tree down and my awning on the next street," said Vincent Amato, the restaurant's manager. "I never imagined we would get off like this."
Officials had warned that Frances would be more about water than wind, and it did cause significant flooding -- mostly in coastal areas overtopped by storm surges and subdivisions with inadequate storm drains. The heavy rains also created a massive sinkhole in the northbound lanes of Interstate 95, the East Coast's major highway, and overwhelmed many central Florida cattle pastures that were already saturated by Charlie. Lake Okeechobee, the largest water body in the South, was so buffeted by Frances as the eye passed nearby that its south end rose 12 feet higher than its north end; later in the day, after the winds shifted, its north end was 12 feet higher than its south end.
But the lake did not come close to overtopping or overwhelming its dike, as it did during a 1928 hurricane that killed more than 2,000 people. And even though a few coastal roads turned into rivers, and some central Florida cattle pastures that were already saturated by Charley turned into giant puddles, the rains did not overwhelm the South Florida Water Management District's elaborate system of drainage canals, as many officials had expected. Spokeswoman Kathy Copeland credited that success to the district's efforts to release millions of gallons before the storm to make room for Frances.
"This could have been a very damaging event, but we were really prepared," Copeland said. "The system functioned very, very well."
Here in Osceola County, where Charley caused more than $300 million in damage after crashing into downtown Kissimmee from the southwest, officials had feared a similar disaster once Frances arrived from the southeast. But public safety director Tad Stone said the initial damage appeared to be minimal, and the expected flooding had not materialized.
The county was still littered with branches and other debris from Charley, but fears that Frances would turn them into missiles did not come true. Even Sherwood Forest, a low-lying mobile home community, escaped relatively unscathed.
"I thought this would be much, much worse," Stone said.
Shelters were so crowded Sunday that the Red Cross began asking residents with inhabitable homes to leave. But officials emphasized that they were glad so many Floridians had heeded their warnings. Jeb Bush praised his constituents for their storm preparations, and for staying inside and off the roads during the storm.
"You just can't be too prepared for something like this," said St. Cloud Mayor Glenn Sangiovanni, who is also an official at the local utility.
Red Cross spokeswoman Kelly Donaghy said that "we are not seeing many people returning to their homes yet" because of power outages, flying debris and other obstacles. But, she said, "our concern is educating people on all the dangers when they go back to their homes," ranging from polluted water to weakened buildings.
"From what folks on the ground are telling us, movement is not easy because there is still a lot of wind and rain," Donaghy said. "We hope that people will be cautious about returning too soon."
It did seem that Florida was better prepared for Frances -- and better behaved during Frances. But there were several reports of looters -- including a gang that stole about $10,000 worth of clothing from an Orlando store, two men arrested trying to steal an ATM machine with a chain saw, and other would-be opportunists that Palm Beach County Sheriff Edwin W. Bieluch described as "evil, pernicious jackals." Miscreants even ripped the hurricane shutters off a police substation in Fort Pierce.
Relief workers have a daunting task ahead as they try to clean up behind Charley and Frances -- and soon they may have to deal with yet another meteorological menace. Ivan intensified into a 135-mph Category Four storm Sunday, and was forecast to crash into Puerto Rico on Thursday. One Kissimmee resident Sunday scrawled a message for Ivan on his plywood: "Two Down, One to Go."
"Hopefully, Ivan will be someone else's problem," said Osceola County Manager Edwin J. Hunzeker. "I think we've already had our share."
Roig-Franzia contributed from Delray Beach. Staff writers Marc Kaufman in Stuart and Dan Eggen in Washington and special correspondents Catharine Skipp in Miami and Milton Benjamin in Vero Beach contributed to this report.