Hurricane Frances sealed its legacy as a ponderous tormentor on Monday, flailing at Florida for a third straight day as it slipped into the Gulf of Mexico and came crashing back to land with heavy winds and rains on the Panhandle.
Frances has killed at least 12 people -- nine in Florida, two in the Bahamas, and one late Monday in Georgia, when a young woman died after the car she was riding in hydroplaned and overturned during the storm, state police said. But the predictions of monumental floods from the soggy storm, so feared for their potential to sweep away neighborhoods and electrocute people near downed power lines, never materialized.
The storm left behind a primal search for resources as it traveled over more than 300 miles of Florida, spanning from the glitzy villas of Palm Beach to the drab state government high-rises of Tallahassee. Gas lines stretched as long as a quarter-mile outside the few stations that could power their pumps in coastal towns where Frances first made landfall, such as Stuart and Fort Pierce. Hundreds crowded into public parks to get ice from relief organizations. At times, as many as 6 million utility customers were without power, and nerves were already fraying: Call-in radio shows seethed with complaints about the wait for ice, water and electricity.
Convoys of state and federal relief crews -- delayed by abominable road conditions on Sunday -- streamed into southeastern Florida all day. The long lines of military vehicles carrying personnel and supplies gave the state's major arteries the appearance of a war zone. Thousands of power company workers worried over downed lines, restoring power to millions. Still, more than 3 million customers were unable to warm their water, refrigerate their food or light their homes on Monday afternoon.
Frances's cartoonish features -- its massive eye and its stultifyingly slow pace -- make it one of the strangest and most remarkable storms in modern U.S. history. Few hurricanes have spent so much time over land or had such imposing cores.
"It's rare, especially considering the strength of the hurricane," said Cary J. Mock, a hurricane historian at the University of South Carolina.
Frances weakened to a tropical depression by Monday night, dipping to 35-mph winds as it churned across the Panhandle after making landfall again near Apalachicola. It dropped heavy rains on the Panhandle and spun off tornadoes as far south as Jupiter and as far north as southern Georgia. Of the nine deaths blamed on the storm in Florida, five involved traffic accidents, the Associated Press reported.
President Bush announced that he will travel to Florida on Wednesday to survey damage. He asked Congress to approve $2 billion to help the state recover from Frances and from Hurricane Charley, the huge storm that battered Florida's west coast three weeks ago. Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry issued a statement urging Americans to donate to the American Red Cross and other charities.
Frances, a Category 2 hurricane with 105-mph winds, did not blow as hard as Hurricane Charley, which was a Category 4 hurricane with 145-mph winds when it whacked Florida's west coast. Nor did Frances leave the almost operatic scenes of destruction that Charley painted in the mangled trailer-park retirement villages of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte.
But Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said on Monday that the cost of damage caused by Frances's winds and its widespread flooding could equal the $7 billion impact of Charley. Risk Management Solutions, a Newark, Calif., firm that estimates storm damage, said that losses from Frances could cost insurers $3 billion to $6 billion.
The damage figure is likely to be that high because Frances spread over so much of Florida. At one point on Sunday, nearly the entire state -- from the Keys to Jacksonville -- was cast in gray by Frances's cloud cover. The eye was even more staggering, peaking at 60 miles across.
"I was almost intimidated when I saw it," said Jeff Shaughnessy, the meteorologist for the South Florida Water Management District. "I had never seen one bigger than 35 miles. I didn't think that was possible."
The hurricane caused more damage at the Kennedy Space Center than any other storm. Its winds punched two holes in the gargantuan Vehicle Assembly Building, creating 40,000 square feet of "open windows" in one of the most recognizable images of the U.S. space program.
By mid-afternoon Monday, Florida was a utility nightmare. The mayor of Fort Pierce warned residents that their drinking water would be "cloudy." Boil-water orders were issued in towns across the length of Florida's Treasure Coast, the area around Jupiter and Stuart, and its Space Coast, the region slightly to the north, anchored by the Kennedy Space Center. At least 53 of Florida's 67 counties had experienced power outages and 47 had issued evacuation orders for low-lying areas.
Some evacuation orders were being lifted on Monday, causing an exodus from public shelters; all but 1,800 of the 18,000 people who slept in Palm Beach County shelters were on their way home. But many, especially those who live on barrier islands, were returning home with an ominous caveat from emergency officials, who warned homeowners about crossing over to the islands "at their own risk."
A few blocks from the roadblock keeping people off the beachside neighborhoods of Hutchinson Island, near Stuart, Mark Kates peered into the window of a hospice thrift store next to a salon that said "Bad Hair Day" on its plywood. Kates's local hospice organization had moved extra beds into a sturdy facility for terminally ill people who could not stay in their homes during the storm.
"It's very, very difficult for the ill people and their families -- they're already under tremendous stress," he said.
Skeletal forms of road signs stripped to their metal frames littered the roads connecting Stuart with the dozens of small communities dotting Florida's east coast. A toppled canopy at an Exxon station off Interstate 95 draped limply over the gas pumps. The message on the boarded-up station's plywood was a sentiment felt by almost everyone: Pray for Us.
The damage followed a fairly consistent pattern: Frances was tough on roof tiles, traffic lights, billboards and mobile homes. But most concrete structures seemed to weather the storm.
For all the worries about flooding, large parts of the state appeared to fare better than expected. The Kissimmee Valley area of central Florida had received almost twice its average rainfall in August and was saturated even before Frances. But even though three major lakes in the region swelled above flood stage Monday, massive flooding did not occur.
"It looks like we've dodged a bullet," said Osceola County Chairman Ken Shipley.
There was no surer sign that life would go on than the doors opening at the landmark Florida tourist attractions, Walt Disney World and SeaWorld, which escaped with minimal damage. Two other parks -- Disney-MGM Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom -- remained closed so staff members could tend to storm-damaged homes.
While Disney's roller coasters whooshed, volunteers at the Port St. Lucie County Civic Center in Fort Pierce were occupied with more elemental concerns. The shelter's staff was struggling to care for about 270 residents with special needs. Many of them were in wheelchairs, on walkers, or were attached to oxygen tanks.
"We've got no running water. We just got electricity. And our roof is leaking," said Maureen Louise Dohoney, a nurse at the shelter.
At the height of the storm's fury, the shelter's personnel used buckets to capture water from the leaking roof, then used the precious collected drops to flush the center's balky toilets. The storm's passage did not end their woes. Dohoney had one plea on Monday, but it was an urgent one: "Send potties!"
Grunwald reported from Fort Pierce. Staff writers Josh White and Justin Blum in Washington contributed to this report.