Deceptive, destructive Hurricane Frances seized Florida Sunday in a stranglehold of water, wind and sheer persistence. But meanwhile, recovery efforts began even before the state got loose from the storm's painful grip.
With a span the size of Texas and the pace of an afternoon stroll, Frances seemed likely to leave its footprints over virtually the entire state during its multiday trek. Frances was expected to sweep into the Panhandle today, and although it has been downgraded to a tropical storm, the prospect was enough to spur evacuations in four counties there.
Now spinning tropical storm-force winds over a 200-mile swath, Frances is expected to emerge as a low-grade hurricane in the Panhandle, south of Tallahassee, this afternoon. It is expected to dump between 8 and 15 inches of rain in the capital, which has already lost power in some areas because of tree debris from wind gusts.
"We continue to be enveloped, engulfed and surrounded by Frances," Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings said Sunday.
On Sunday, Frances doused parts of the state with more than 13 inches of rain, buffeted some areas with winds of up to 95 mph, and pummeled some places for hours before crawling off. It left more than 4.5 million people without power as of 7 p.m. Sunday, according to officials.
The storm tore into the Treasure Coast, where its center made landfall late Saturday around Sewall's Point in Martin County. It left more than 120 cell-phone towers out of service in Martin County and peeled the roof off St. Lucie County's shelter for people with special medical needs. In south Brevard County, on the Space Coast, lashing rain and wind gusts to 50 miles an hour continued through the afternoon, turning U.S. 1 into a dangerous obstacle course for those who could take confinement and exile from their homes no longer.
In Palm Beach County, the storm left knee-high water in parts of West Palm Beach, snapped off the Lake Worth Pier, swamped part of Interstate 95 near North Palm Beach and sucked a West Palm Beach portion of the highway into a sinkhole. It scattered debris, swamped some streets and caused extensive outages in Broward County.
Though Frances lost steam while lumbering across the state, it dumped up to 10 inches of rain in the Orlando area -- still recovering from an encounter with Hurricane Charley last month -- and fissured a dike holding 120 million gallons of acidic and radioactive wastewater at a Tampa-area phosphate processing plant. Though the chemicals are potentially harmful, state environmental protection chief Colleen Castille said the spill posed no immediate threat to people.
Frances sauntered toward Florida late last week with Charley-like winds of up to 145 mph, and many Floridians had allowed themselves some relief when Frances' top wind speed sank. But the sister storm may well prove just as ruinous.
"Probably, at the end of the day, we will find the damage is equal, but over a larger area," Gov. Jeb Bush said as he surveyed Frances' aftermath in Palm Beach County on Sunday. He was scheduled to do the same today in the Treasure Coast and parts of central Florida.
Three people were killed, but it was not clear whether the deaths were storm-related.
Some insurance modeling firms are estimating damage at $2 billion to $10 billion, a figure that excludes flooding damage and damages to uninsured property. Charley has caused an estimated $7.4 billion in insured damage to homes, businesses and personal possessions, more than any other hurricane in Florida since Andrew in 1992.
President Bush declared the entire state of Florida a federal disaster area, setting the stage for help ranging from heavy equipment to food and water. The Florida National Guard activated 5,000 troops Sunday, mainly to help law enforcement prevent looting. Federal workers will be on hand to help residents assess damage and apply for financial aid, and state and local aid agencies are planning to mobilize hundreds of volunteers to provide food, water and ice to those in need.
And the governor on Sunday gave state environmental officials authority over the state's gasoline supply, including setting emergency rules that could include rationing.
Meanwhile, weary and waterlogged Floridians began to emerge from shuttered houses and hurricane shelters, which were still housing more than 400,000 statewide on Sunday night. Some in South Florida had spent as many as three nights on gym floors and in school hallways, hiding out from a storm that took its time arriving.
"I love my home, and I'm ready to get back," said Jerri Carden, 45, packing up blankets and pillows Sunday at Lake Shore Middle School in Belle Glade. She had been there since Friday.
Convenience stores and small groceries in and west of Lake Worth had long lines of customers. In east Miramar, the owners of A-1 Bagels braved the elements at 3 a.m. to bake bagels. The wholesalers weren't planning to open the shop to customers, "but we got calls from customers saying they wanted something to eat and drink," said co-owner Marcia Thompson.
While most took shelter, some took advantage. Police in Davie made several burglary arrests, saying the suspects were targeting empty homes and businesses. In the most chilling criminal fallout from Frances, Boynton Beach police think a local man persuaded his mother, 83, to weather the storm at his home in order to kill her, and himself, with carbon-monoxide fumes from a running car.
But the storm also elicited some good feelings, kind gestures and outright heroism, ranging from people who helped neighbors put up shutters to rescue workers who saved lives in the thick of the storm.
And Floridians may need to draw on the experience of Frances all too soon. Hurricane Ivan is swirling over the Atlantic Ocean at speeds up to 135 mph.
Staff Writers Kathy Bushouse, Mike Clary, Liz Doup, Peter Franceschina, Shana Gruskin, Alva James-Johnson, Akilah Johnson, Anthony Man, Joseph Mann, Robert Nolin, Lori Sykes, Michael Turnbell, and Brittany Wallman, as well as the Associated Press, The Orlando Sentinel, and The Stuart News contributed to this report.