FORT PIERCE, Fla. – Massive Hurricane Frances (search) trudged ashore with 115 mph wind and pelting rain late Saturday, knocking out power to 2 million people and forcing Floridians to endure a frightening night amid roaring gales that shredded roofs and uprooted trees.
Transformers popped along streets, sending sparks into darkened skies, as families huddled in shelters, bathrooms and hotel lobbies. The wind-whipped coastal waters resembled a churning hot tub.
"I think I'm not going to sleep all night. I hate it at nighttime," said 64-year-old Vonda Gould, a Melbourne evacuee who braved the storm at a Palm Bay hotel. "We don't know when something's going to come flying through the window. It's very spooky."
The storm's slow-motion assault — Frances crawled toward Florida at just 5 mph — came more than a day later than predicted. The western portion of the hurricane's eye crept over parts of the east-central Florida coast Saturday night, but its strongest winds were expected to begin hitting early Sunday.
"Those folks are getting pounded, and they've got worse to come," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center (search).
Four people were hospitalized in Boynton Beach (search) after breathing carbon monoxide fumes from a generator that was running in a house. No other injuries were immediately reported.
En route, Frances shattered windows, toppled power lines and flooded neighborhoods in the Bahamas, driving thousands from their homes. The Freeport airport was partially submerged in water.
For many Floridians, this would be a night to remember.
Mary Beth and Jack Stiglin, evacuees from nearby Hutchinson Island, sat in their hotel room in Fort Pierce, eating ham and cheese wraps by candlelight as the power lines outside their room sparked and died.
"It's a little romantic. I brought the roses from our garden because they would have been blown away anyway," Mrs. Stiglin said.
Frances' arrival came three weeks after Hurricane Charley killed 27 people and caused billions of dollars in damage in southwestern Florida.
For some Floridians, the second storm couldn't arrive soon enough.
"I just want it to be quick. Just get it over with," said Woodeline Jadis, 20, tired of waiting at a shelter in Orlando.
The storm's leading edge pounded the Florida coast early Saturday, and about 300 miles of coastline remained under a hurricane warning. Frances was so big that virtually the entire state feared damage from wind and water. Forecasters said the storm would dump 8 to 12 inches of rain, with up to 20 inches in some areas.
"This is the time to show some resolve and not be impatient," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "This is a dangerous, dangerous storm."
In Washington, President Bush declared a major disaster in the counties affected by Frances, meaning residents will be eligible for federal aid.
The largest evacuation in state history, with 2.8 million residents ordered inland, sent 70,000 residents and tourists into shelters. The storm shut down much of Florida, including airports and amusement parks, at the start of the usually busy Labor Day weekend.
Some evacuees, frustrated by Frances' sluggish pace, decided to leave shelters Saturday and return later.
Deborah Nicholas dashed home from a Fort Pierce shelter to take a shower, but stayed only a few minutes when the lights started flickering and trees began popping out of the ground. She has slept in a deck chair at a high school cafeteria since Wednesday.
"I'm going stir crazy," Nicholas said. "I'm going to be in a straitjacket by Monday. I don't know how much longer I can take it. Have mercy."
Ron and Virginia Pastuch went home after spending two days at a Palm Bay shelter. Pastuch said he had never been in a shelter before.
"It's the first time, and the last time, too," he said.
Residents could take comfort that Frances weakened as it lingered off the coast. Forecasters downgraded it to a Category 2 hurricane as sustained winds receded to 105 mph, down from 145 earlier. But the heavy rain forecast still threatened to cause widespread flooding, and the outer bands of the storm packed plenty of punch.
In Palm Bay, winds pried off pieces of a banquet hall roof, striking some cars in the parking lot. Trees were bent and light posts wobbled in the howling gusts.
In Fort Pierce, the storm shredded awnings and blew out business signs. Many downtown streets were crisscrossed with toppled palm trees.
Wind gusts reached 91 mph at Jupiter Inlet north of West Palm Beach. Florida Power & Light pulled crews off the streets because of heavy wind, meaning those without power would have to wait until the storm subsided, utility spokesman Bill Swank said.
In Stuart, traffic lights dangled, and one hung by a single wire. Downed trees blocked at least one residential street, and signposts were bent to the ground. The facade at a flooring store collapsed, as did the roof of a storage shed at a car dealership.
Roads, streets and beaches were mostly deserted — the occasional surfer notwithstanding. Roads were littered with palm fronds and other debris. Businesses were shuttered and even gas stations were closed, their empty pumps covered with shrink wrap.
Not everyone stayed home: Two men were charged with looting for trying to break into a Brevard County church.
As the weather worsened, a yacht adrift on the Intercoastal Waterway struggled for more than half an hour in choppy water to anchor in West Palm Beach before tying up to a dock. Other boats bobbed like toys. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescued a man and his cat riding out the storm on a sailboat anchored in Biscayne Bay.
At Palm Beach International Airport, the roof and a door were blown off a hangar.
The storm extended vacations for about 10,000 passengers on nine cruise ships unable return to Florida ports on schedule. They were expected to arrive late Sunday or Monday.
Kevin Palmer, a photographer in Palm Beach County, said the wind blew so hard at his front door that it was making the copper weather stripping around it vibrate and shriek violently.
"It's become our high-gust alarm," Palmer said. "It sets the tone for your ambiance when you've got the rumbling outside, you have this screeching from the weather stripping and you keep wondering if that thumping you just heard is another tree going over or a coconut going flying."
By mid-evening, Frances was centered about 50 miles northeast of Palm Beach and moving to the west-northwest. The storm had redeveloped an eye about 70 miles across, indicating that it could strengthen slightly while over warm open water between the Bahamas and the coast, forecasters at the hurricane center said. Hurricane-force wind extended outward up to 75 miles from its center.
The slow movement and large eye will mean several hours of calm for some locations after they are battered by the strongest winds, Mayfield said.
Frances was expected to push across the state as a tropical storm just north of Tampa, weaken to a tropical depression and drench the Panhandle on Monday before moving into Alabama.
The ninth named storm of the season grew stronger Saturday in the far eastern Atlantic. Tropical Storm Ivan was about 1,575 miles east-southeast of the Lesser Antilles with winds of 60 mph.