Giant sinkholes lurked in the distance. Foot-deep puddles the length of football fields hid the hash marks that divide highway lanes. The rain was so thick at times that almost nothing could be seen ahead except the flashing hazard lights of old sedans crawling forward in the slow lane.
Hurricane Frances, for all its blustery windiness, was above all a soggy transportation system mangler. Its rains have turned parts of the state into virtual islands, blocking rescue workers, police and anyone else from entering without taking their lives into their hands. The road conditions were left so bad that thousands of state and federal workers have been stalled, complicating and delaying what is sure to be one of the biggest relief efforts in the history of this state.
The American Red Cross was holding back 150 supply trucks at a staging area in Bradenton, near Sarasota, waiting for an opening on Sunday that never seemed to come because Frances was taking so long to work its way across the state. The relief agency has called the storm one of the greatest challenges it has ever faced -- an astounding admission considering the fact that the agency had pre-positioned more people and equipment in the state to prepare for Frances than any other storm in its history.
"We can only move them when things are safe and secure," said Peter Teahen, a spokesman for the Red Cross.
Even then, it will take a police escort to get 18-wheelers and dozens of smaller canteen vehicles into Palm Beach County and other coastal regions that appear to have suffered the most from the storm, which has moved at such a slow gait that it is dumping massive amounts of rain on areas already inundated by Hurricane Charley three weeks ago.
"It does elongate things," said Mike Stone of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Intersections were simply treacherous. Power outages and downed traffic signals made for confounding hazards. Jim Newberry, a Fort Pierce police officer who spent two hours navigating through broken tree limbs and standing water to get to work, watched one driver after another whiz through intersections without stopping.
"It's stupid because they're going nowhere," Newberry said.
Not even the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so well-schooled in post-disaster maneuvering, dared to brave the roads on Sunday, keeping millions of pounds of supplies and thousands of personnel waiting to deploy in neighboring states. The agency had 271 trucks, carrying 1.2 million gallons of water, waiting in Georgia, along with 50 trucks bearing 2 million pounds of ice. In Jacksonville, drivers awaited the signal that they could move south with enough baby food for 7,700 infants and 1 million military-style meals ready to eat. Most of the agency's 5,000 relief workers were in other states until they could get an all-clear to head into Florida.
Even after the hurricane's core passed parts of the state on Sunday, police were still being forced to close some of the world's most heavily traveled roadways for hours at a time. Interstate 95, the behemoth that stretches the length of the East Coast, has been shut down repeatedly because the roadbed gave way in Palm Beach County, forming a four-foot-deep, 50-foot-long hole that looks like an outsized open grave.
"Folks on the ground are telling us, movement is not easy because there is still a lot of wind and rain," Red Cross spokeswoman Kelly Donaghy said. "We hope that people will be cautious about returning too soon."
Sometimes Frances seemed to be toying with the crews trying to clear the roads. On Saturday, the storm knocked over so many light poles along I-95 that the southbound lanes were impassable for long stretches of time. The next day, the storm's eye picked up the same light poles and tossed them onto the northbound lanes, prompting more shutdowns.
Cars hydroplaned through massive ponds of pooling water on Florida's Turnpike, causing big pile-ups and hours-long traffic jams. Sport-utility vehicles tipped in the wind. Still, thousands of residents ventured out, compelled by cabin fever after days in shuttered homes or merely by curiosity.
Public officials took to television and the radio, begging people to stay off the road. Sometimes, they spoke from experience. State Sen. David Aronburg, a West Palm Beach Democrat, went out to survey damage with U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) on Sunday. They got a flat tire.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington and special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Fort Pierce, Fla., contributed to this report.