Hurricane Jeanne's rains dumped about 166 billion gallons of water on three counties in central Florida, and as far as Anna Marie Amidon, 81, was concerned on Monday, it might have all fallen directly on her.
The Sunshine State is now the Saturated Sponge State. Three previous hurricanes in the past six weeks left Florida so soggy that reservoirs cannot absorb more water. Officials predicted that much of the drenching Jeanne delivered will probably drain into places such as Kissimmee, especially into low-lying areas such as the Good Samaritan retirement complex, where Amidon lives.
Jeanne, the fourth hurricane to pummel the state this year, was downgraded Monday to a tropical depression, spreading rain in Georgia and spawning tornadoes in the Carolinas. High winds in Southern Pines, N.C., damaged 100 buildings and flipped vehicles, the Associated Press reported. President Bush declared 26 Florida counties disaster areas and late Monday asked Congress for more than $7.1 billion in aid. About 2.5 million people were still without electricity.
People began lining up for food and water, and clearing debris from ravaged homes.
For Amidon and the 1,500 residents of Good Samaritan, however, a new nightmare is about to begin. Enough water to fill about 11 million family-size swimming pools is headed their way.
Serene but implacable, the water has begun to rise at Good Samaritan. Near Scotland Road, where Amidon lives, only about six inches of the top of an orange traffic cone was visible Monday afternoon. Palm trees appeared to be growing out of lakes. Dislodged debris from previous storms floated down streets. Pickup trucks left wakes like speedboats. Eddies and currents formed around islands of lawn. Birds with delicate legs prowled the water's edge, looking for lunch.
Officials predicted that the retirees at the complex would have to be evacuated -- again. Rising waters after Hurricane Frances prompted a mass evacuation, including all the people in the nursing home. It took hours to move the patients with oxygen masks. Now, everyone will probably have to leave once more.
"We don't want panic, but we want people to be realistic," said Bill Graf of the South Florida Water Management District, the agency responsible for flood control. "Even though it's blue skies out there, the water will continue to rise."
Elsewhere in the state, hour-long traffic jams formed on the fringes of coastal towns as residents streamed back into low-lying areas they fled in advance of Jeanne. Once-beautiful yachts, now the stuff of insurance investigators and salvage men, lay half-submerged in the swollen St. Lucie River. Residents cooked meals on camping stoves next to smashed cars.
"Six weeks ago, it was paradise," said Armand Pasquale, 64, who owns a 25-unit apartment building in Stuart.
The National Hurricane Center projected that the storm would cross North Carolina and the southeast tip of Virginia late Tuesday before slipping into the Atlantic early Wednesday. Jeanne has slowed, but could speed up as it curves northeast.
Florida Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings (R) arrived at Osceola County to say the state felt the pain of Amidon and other residents. But the flooding problem is not restricted to this area, and the situation might be worse in the north.
"I hear flooding has been a problem in this area and will continue to be," Jennings said. In Seminole County to the north, she said that lakes and ponds were overflowing and flooding towns. "Lake Monroe has decided to keep flowing through Sanford," she said.
Osceola County Chairman Ken Shipley spoke bluntly to Jennings: "The only thing I can suggest is keep the pocketbook open. Send cash."
But the real problem isn't financial, it's hydraulic. Many of Florida's lakes are already a foot or so above safe levels. Jeanne could add 18 more inches to that, and make flooding a major problem in such places as Kissimmee. Officials are pushing the drainage system to the max, but it could take more than three weeks to get rid of that much water.
The flood control system was designed for the kind of worst-case scenario that came around once every 25 years, Graf said. The combined effect of hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne was the kind of worst-case scenario that came around every 200 years.
Predicting water flows after a hurricane can be complicated, but after three hurricanes the calculation becomes simple. If the state were a sponge, it is now soaked, and new water has to be drained or will end up in people's living rooms or in city streets.
Using a 15-by-30-foot family swimming pool as a measuring tool, Graf said the state's flood control system was emptying the basin of three central Florida counties at a rate of five swimming pools per second into the Kissimmee River. But even at that phenomenal pace, draining the equivalent of 11 million swimming pools -- six inches of rain over 1,600 square miles -- would take more than three weeks.
In the meantime, the waters will keep rising, and probably crest after a week, officials predicted. County officials said that an evacuation of residents at Good Samaritan is all but inevitable.
Graf said the community was designed before new flood-control plans had been developed, and was constructed at a lower elevation than would be permitted now. Of special worry, he said, is that many of its utilities are delivered through underground cables that do not take kindly to submersion.
In an interview at Good Samaritan's community center, Amidon said that Hurricane Frances had pushed water into her mobile home's sun room. Amidon was not around when Frances struck; some residents at Good Samaritan live here only part of the year.
"When I came back, I could see how high the water was in my [sun] room because of the mud," she said. "I have lost my sleeper sofa-bed, my overstuffed chair, a side table, a tea table, and the rug is gone."
Amidon's daughter and son-in-law had recently arranged to buy the mobile home for her but did not get it insured, she said. "I thought my daughter bought the insurance," she said. "Each one thought the other had signed the papers and sent them in."
Betty Dubberly, 67, another resident, spoke up: "Everyone's spirit is down, but would they move? No. This is home." Amidon agreed.
"We have lakefront property, don't we?" Dubberly joked.
"It's all water," Amidon corrected. "I have oceanfront property."
Staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia and special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.