MELBOURNE, Fla. – Hurricane Jeanne (search) tore a fresh path of destruction and despair as it continued its march up storm-ravaged Florida, where the fourth major hurricane in six weeks shut down much of the state and prompted recovery plans on a scale never before seen in the nation.
At least six people died in the storm, which plowed across Florida's midsection in a virtual rerun for many residents still trying to regroup from hurricanes that have crisscrossed the Southeast since mid-August.
Rocketing debris scattered in earlier storms, Jeanne came ashore around midnight Saturday with 120-mph winds, striking its first blow in the same area hit three weeks ago by Hurricane Frances. It was expected to weaken into a tropical depression later Monday while moving east of the Panhandle, where 70,000 homes and businesses remained without power because of Hurricane Ivan less than two weeks ago.
"Adversity makes us strong. This dynamic state will return," Gov. Jeb Bush (search) said at the Indian River County emergency operations center Sunday, where nearly all of the county was without power and residents were told to boil tap water before drinking it to avoid contaminants.
Jeanne ripped off roofs, left stop lights dangling precariously, destroyed a deserted community center in Jensen Beach and flooded some bridges from the mainland to barrier islands straddling the Atlantic coast. More than 2.5 million homes and businesses were without power.
Florida was the first state to withstand a four-hurricane pounding in one season since Texas in 1886 — a milestone that came with two months remaining in the hurricane season.
"We fix it and nature destroys it and we fix it again," said Rockledge bar owner Franco Zavaroni, who opened his tavern to seven friends who spread mattresses on the floor among the pool tables to ride out the storm.
Rain sprayed sideways when Jeanne's eye struck land. As it dragged across northern Florida early Monday, it had weakened to a tropical storm with sustained wind near 50 mph.
At 2 a.m. EDT Monday, the center of the storm was about 50 miles south of Valdosta, Ga. It was moving erratically, but was expected to start heading north over the next day.
President Bush declared a major disaster area in Florida while officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the hurricanes represented the largest relief effort in the agency's history, larger than the response to the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, Calif.
"We just somehow have to get as much relief to them as possible to show them that we're going to be right there with them, that we haven't abandoned them," said FEMA director Mike Brown.
More than 3,000 National Guard troops were deployed to aid relief efforts. Several counties, including Palm Beach and St. Lucie — two of the hardest hit by Jeanne's winds and rain — planned to open distribution sites Monday morning, but the plans were contingent on water and ice supplies being delivered as scheduled by federal officials.
Charley was a faster storm when it hammered Florida's southwest coast Aug. 13; Frances blanketed much of the peninsula after striking the state's Atlantic coast Sept. 5; and Ivan blasted the western Panhandle when it made landfall Sept. 16. The three storms caused billions of dollars in damage and killed at least 73 people in Florida alone.
Jeanne was a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall at Hutchinson Island, 35 miles north of West Palm Beach — almost the same spot that Frances struck.
Once inland, the 400-mile wide storm stretched across the state, passing northeast of Tampa and moving east of the Panhandle. Officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the similar paths of Jeanne and Frances were possibly unprecedented.
At least 21 Florida county school districts canceled classes on Monday, including St. Lucie County, which has not reopened since Frances struck.
Police in St. Lucie rescued five families when the hurricane's eye passed over late Saturday, including a wheelchair-bound couple in their 90s whose mobile home collapsed around them, emergency operations spokeswoman Linette Trabulsy said.
Near Clearwater, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer was lowered from a helicopter onto The Rogue, a 31-foot fishing vessel whose two-person crew had radioed a mayday after failing to reach port.
"No one was on board. The life raft was on board. We don't know where the guys are," said Petty Officer Robert Suddarth, a Coast Guard spokesman in St. Petersburg.
At Cape Canaveral, the third hurricane to hit NASA's spaceport in just over a month blew out more panels and left more gaping holes in the massive shuttle assembly building.
The toll from the latest storm extended as far north as Daytona Beach and south to Miami, where one person was electrocuted after touching a downed power line. Two people died when their sport utility vehicle plunged into a lake south of Boca Raton.
A 15-year-old boy was pinned by a falling tree Sunday and died in Clay County southwest of Jacksonville. And in Brevard County, a man was found dead in a ditch in what police called an apparent drowning. In nearby Micco, a 60-year-old man was found dead after a hurricane party at a home. He was found lying in water after the house had flooded; police said the death may be alcohol-related or the man may have drowned.
Earlier, Jeanne tore across the Bahamas, leaving some neighborhoods under 6 feet of water. The storm caused flooding in Haiti that killed more than 1,500 people.