FORT PIERCE, Fla. – Hurricane Jeanne (search) got stronger, bigger and faster as it battered the Bahamas (search) and bore down on Florida Saturday, forcing hundreds of thousands more residents to hurriedly shutter their homes ahead of its anticipated devastating punch.
About 2 million people, from near the state's southern tip to the Georgia border, were urged to evacuate as Jeanne strengthened to 115 mph from 105 mph earlier in the day. It was expected to come ashore late Saturday or early Sunday somewhere on the state's central Atlantic coast and take a last-minute turn to the north that could devastate east and central Florida.
"Yesterday I was hoping we wouldn't lose power again," said Lynn Tarrington of Lake Worth, who was leaving her home near the water early Saturday. "Now I'm hoping I have a house left when I come back."
As it made its way toward Florida, Jeanne tore across the Bahamas, leaving some neighborhoods submerged under 5 feet of water. No deaths or serious injuries were reported there, but the storm was earlier blamed for more than 1,500 deaths in floods in Haiti (search).
The Category 3 storm's outer bands started lashing Florida Saturday morning with steadily increasing rain and wind. Waves of 24 feet were reported ahead of Jeanne and were moving toward the coast.
It will be the state's fourth hurricane in six weeks -- a scenario unmatched in more than a century.
Jeanne was expected to hit near where Hurricane Frances came ashore three weeks ago, leaving behind piles of debris that officials feared would turn into deadly, home-destroying missiles in Jeanne's wind.
"I really can't believe it's happening all over again -- and right in the same place," said Charity Brown, who moved to West Palm Beach from Chicago three months ago with her children, ages 5 and 3. They hid in a closet as Frances tore the roof off their apartment. That hole is now covered by a tarp, so the family took shelter Saturday at an elementary school that was filling with evacuees.
"I'm going to get out of (Florida). It's scary. It's crazy."
Not since Texas in 1886 has one state has been struck by four hurricanes in a season. Jeanne follows Charley, which struck Aug. 13 and devastated southwest Florida; Frances, which struck Labor Day weekend; and Ivan, which blasted the western Panhandle when it made landfall in nearby Alabama on Sept. 16. The storms caused billions of dollars in combined damage and killed at least 70 people in Florida alone.
Gov. Jeb Bush warned Floridians not to let storm fatigue get the best of them, "even though we're weary and even though this is a painful process."
"They must treat this hurricane as if it's the only hurricane they've ever been through," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "This has the potential to cause loss of life."
Officials ran out of time to remove piles of debris left over from Frances -- some taller than adults -- that still sit in neighborhoods. Some people took to burning the downed trees, housing material and other debris that could become airborne, banging into homes and endangering anyone who ventures outside. If debris penetrates a home's window or wall, that would allow Jeanne's winds to get inside and push off the roof.
At a mobile home park on the Intracoastal Waterway, George MacArthur's home was one of the few that remained intact amid mounds of twisted metal, smashed furniture, broken tiles and garbage bins filled with trash. He feared his home was about to be smashed by all the debris Jeanne flings about.
"All the ones in the front got it last time. Now it's my turn," MacArthur said.
The storm will make the already formidable job of keeping the lights on in Florida even more difficult -- especially if Jeanne follows in Frances' path, giving its wind piles of ammunition to topple power lines.
Electric company officials feared Hurricane Jeanne could leave millions of customers without power, some for three weeks or more; more than 185,000 customers already were without power Saturday evening. An estimated 6 million people were affected by outages caused by Hurricane Frances.
About 12,000 customers already were without power in South Florida on Saturday. In the Panhandle, more than 81,000 homes and business remained without electricity because of Hurricane Ivan.
Florida Power and Light, the state's largest power company, had recruited 2,500 workers from around the country to help with the impending restoration effort, and was trying to recruit more, company president Armando Olivera said.
Gas stations and businesses were boarded up and deserted Saturday afternoon, and law enforcement took to the radio airwaves, saying that anyone who was outside their homes after the 6 p.m. curfew would end up in jail.
It was unknown how many of the 2 million people urged to evacuate actually did, but Judy and Terry Smith, their daughter and son-in-law were among them.
They were driving from their home on Merritt Island inland to a hotel in Orlando, bringing their one dog and five cats with them. Their house was spared by Frances, but they weren't taking any chances with Jeanne.
"What can you do?" Judy Smith asked. "You've got your house insurance, and everything in it can be replaced. Everything I care about is right here," she said, motioning to her family, her eyes filling with tears.
State officials said more than 31,000 people were housed in shelters Saturday. Many of them have homes that were damaged by Hurricane Frances.
LaTrease Haliburton reluctantly checked into a West Palm Beach shelter with her 6-year-old daughter, who has had nightmares since Frances caved in the bathroom ceiling in her family's apartment.
"I don't want to be here, but what else can I do," Haliburton said. "I want to make sure my daughter isn't as scared this time. ... I'm hoping this is easier on her."
Others were trying to ride out the storm. Behind a fire station in Titusville, a pile of sand, bags and shovels were open to all. Alfred Grace was filling sandbags to put on his roof to hold down the tarps covering damage from the last hurricane.
Johnny Curry, 50, a Kennedy Space Center engineer, wanted sandbags to keep water away from the back of his house. Water almost got into his patio door during Frances.
"I can't do anything about this until I retire," said Curry, who ultimately plans to move to Georgia. "This is getting a little old."
At 5 p.m. EDT, Jeanne was centered about 105 miles east-southeast of Vero Beach and was moving west and slightly north at 14 mph, slightly faster than Friday.
Jeanne was expected to turn north over central Florida and stay inland over Georgia and the Carolinas through Tuesday. Rainfall totals of 5 to 10 inches were expected in the storm's path, and flooding could be a major concern because previous hurricanes have already saturated the ground and filled canals, rivers and lakes.