MALABAR, Fla. - Hurricane Jeanne blazed a deadly and destructive path across the heart of Florida yesterday, driving waves of residents to inland shelters and ripping into dazed and weary communities that had scarcely recovered from three previous blows inflicted during this extraordinary tropical storm season.
After making landfall near Port St. Lucie, in nearly the exact spot where Hurricane Frances tore into the eastern coastline three weeks ago, Jeanne took a slow and powerful crescent-shaped churn across the center of the state, scattering debris with 120-mph winds, flooding coastal areas from Daytona Beach to West Palm Beach, and cutting electricity to more than 1.5 million people. The storm's remnants are expected to dump as much as 3 inches of rain in the Baltimore area by tomorrow night.
While smaller than Frances and less powerful than predecessors Charley and Ivan, Jeanne is the deadliest of this year's hurricanes, responsible for more than 1,500 deaths in Haiti. And it was blamed for at least six more deaths in Florida yesterday, including that of a 60-year-old man in the coastal town of Micco who was found floating in a flooded home after a hurricane party.
Florida officials had said they were particularly worried about Jeanne's potential death toll because many residents - either tired of fleeing their homes or emboldened by prior good fortune - chose not to evacuate the storm's target zone. But Jeanne, a 400-mile-wide Category 3 storm, elicited new respect from residents who have suffered more hurricanes this season than any state in 118 years.
Stephanie Lynch was one of them. She chose to ride out Jeanne at her mother's home in Malabar, just south of Melbourne near Florida's eastern coast, because she was "completely burnt out" from the past hurricanes. She and her 2 1/2 - year-old daughter emerged unharmed from the storm yesterday, but they spent much of the night cowering in the one-story home's bathroom listening to the shrieking winds and the sounds of shingles being torn from the roof.
"I'll never do that again. It was absolutely terrifying," Lynch said. "The walls were literally pulsating. You could see them move. I thought the roof was going to come off."
A person in Miami was electrocuted by a downed power line, two people drowned near Boca Raton when their sport utility vehicle plunged into a lake, and a man was found dead in a ditch in Brevard County near Melbourne, apparently a drowning victim. Southwest of Jacksonville, a 15-year-old boy died after being pinned by a falling tree.
In St. Lucie County, north of West Palm Beach, police rescued five families when the hurricane's eye passed over late Saturday. Among those rescued was a couple in their 90s, both in wheelchairs, whose mobile home collapsed around them, emergency operations spokeswoman Linette Trabulsy said.
Officials at Florida Power & Light Co. warned residents that restoring power to the newly darkened regions could take up to three weeks because of the extensive damage and the state's stretched resources.
Gov. Jeb Bush sought to reassure Floridians that the storm assaults cannot continue forever. No state has suffered four hurricanes in the same year for more than a century - since Texas was similarly battered in 1886. And the hurricane season doesn't end for another two months.
"This will become a memory," the governor said. "This does come to an end, and when it does, we can probably use the term 'normal' again."
Scenes of devastation
U.S. 1 from Titusville to Vero Beach, which traces the shore of the Indian River along Florida's east coast, gave mile after mile of evidence of Jeanne's power. Long stretches were closed by pools of standing water or draping power lines, or the potentially deadly combination of both. Nearly all of the traffic signals were dark. In and around Melbourne, most of the utility poles leaned sharply to the west, some with snapped tops that lay in heaps of metal along the highway.
At a West Marine boating supply store in Melbourne, employee Terry Inman talked about the Herculean task that lay before him and his co-workers. Although the employees had dutifully covered the tall glass windows lining the front of the store with plywood, Jeanne had blown them all inward, spreading shattered glass, rainwater and ruined merchandise across the store. The strong winds tossed aside shelves and pushed over displays at the front of the store. The storm also caused significant damage to the roof, Inman said.
"It just wouldn't hold," he said, gesturing to the plywood on the ground. "I can't believe any wind would be that strong."
Farther south, the city of Palm Bay was a tangle of toppled gas station awnings, shattered signs and crumpled ruins of roadside garden shops. Still, dozens of motorists dodged the power lines, branches, water and garbage to make their way along U.S. 1. One woman in an SUV said she had stayed overnight Saturday at a hotel in Orlando but couldn't stand not knowing how her house in Vero Beach had fared.
Simply had to find out
"It's not an ideal time to drive," she said while pulled over on U.S. 1 during a heavy downpour. "But I won't be able to settle down until I know what's going on with my house."
Police closed at least one stretch of the highway, saying a small bridge between Brevard and Indian River counties was structurally unsound. And police advised against driving on the high bridges that connect the mainland to the barrier islands.
At the Kennedy Space Center near Titusville, where Hurricane Frances tore holes into the huge Vehicle Assembly Building, officials announced that the facility will be opened only to "disaster-assessment teams" today. Initial observations indicate "some damage to facilities," they said, though space shuttle and International Space Station hardware was believed to be safe.
This year's hurricanes have prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to undertake the largest relief effort in its history, eclipsing the responses to the 1994 earthquake near Los Angeles and the 2001 terrorist attacks, FEMA Director Michael Brown said. President Bush declared a major disaster area in Florida.
"You're going to have some areas that have been hit once, twice and sometimes maybe three times," Brown said. "That's very frustrating, I know, for those who live in those communities."
Jeanne weakened into a tropical storm yesterday but continued to pack 65 mph winds as it pushed overland toward Georgia and the Carolinas. The center of the storm is expected to move offshore before the system reaches Baltimore.
Luis Rosa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., said Jeanne's remnants could bring as much as 3 inches of rain to the city and its suburbs by tomorrow night. Rosa said forecasters might issue a flood watch today in anticipation of rising water in local streams and rivers.
This season's hurricanes have caused more than 1,700 deaths in Central and North America, but Jeanne is responsible for most of the casualties. Also, the storm left as many as 300,000 people homeless in the island nation of Haiti, and another 900 people are missing and presumed dead in the city of Gonaives. About 140 Uruguayan soldiers were headed for Gonaives yesterday to reinforce about 600 United Nations peacekeepers. Jeanne also killed 24 people in the Dominican Republic and seven in Puerto Rico.
In the United States, this year's deadliest storm has been Ivan, responsible for 43 deaths, while Charley and Frances are blamed for 31 and 33 deaths, respectively.
The hurricane season lasts into November, but only one other tropical storm was active in the Atlantic region yesterday. Lisa was spinning far to the east of Bermuda, heading north, and is not expected to approach the United States.
The Associated Press and Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article. Bykowicz reported from Florida's east coast, and Little wrote from Baltimore.