Florida braces for hurricane

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 14, 1999

The Associated Press

MIAMI – Authorities urged nearly 2 million people to evacuate coastal areas stretching from Florida to North Carolina today as Hurricane Floyd, one of the most powerful storms to ever threaten the United States, roared through the Bahamas.

Tuesday, September 14, 1999

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MIAMI – Authorities urged nearly 2 million people to evacuate coastal areas stretching from Florida to North Carolina today as Hurricane Floyd, one of the most powerful storms to ever threaten the United States, roared through the Bahamas.

Floyd’s eye was expected to pass within 90 miles of southern Florida today, and perhaps come within 50 miles of north Florida’s coast by Wednesday morning, before striking land somewhere farther north.

”If this thing parallels us, it could act like a weedeater going up the coast,” said Craig Fugate of the Florida Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. ”It’s going to be pretty devastating.”

Floyd’s top sustained wind eased slightly this morning to 150 mph – only a few miles less than Category 5 strength, the most powerful designation for a hurricane.

Storm surges in the Bahamas were reported at 20 feet above normal tide levels as trees were snapped by the wind and communications lines were knocked out, and rain showers from the 600-mile-wide storm were touching the Florida coast today.

At 8 a.m. EDT, Floyd was about 255 miles east of Miami and moving slightly to the west-northwest at about 14 mph. Southern Florida could begin feeling hurricane-force winds – at least 74 mph – by this afternoon.

Large areas of Florida still could be battered because hurricane-force wind of at least 74 mph extended 125 miles from the hurricane’s center. And tropical storm-force wind was expected to reach the Fort Lauderdale area this morning and Palm Beach County around midday, forecasters said.

Disney World and SeaWorld in Orlando were closed today. Airlines canceled virtually all flights into and out of southern Florida, and the military sent aircraft inland and ships out of port to ride out the storm at sea. Crews of big civilian ships were told to get ready to leave port at Charleston, S.C.

Only a skeleton crew was left behind at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and they could leave if wind becomes as fierce as predicted. Three space shuttles were in the shuttle hangar, which is designed to withstand wind of only up to 105 mph, and the fourth was in the Vehicle Assembly Building, built to withstand 125 mph wind. Four multimillion-dollar rockets stood exposed on launch pads.

Floyd was much larger than Hurricane Andrew – a Category 4 storm – which smashed into South Florida in 1992, causing $25 billion in damage, killing 26 people and leaving 160,000 homeless.

A hurricane warning was in effect today from Florida City, south of Miami, to Brunswick, Ga., a distance of about 400 miles. A hurricane warning means hurricane conditions could be felt within 24 hours.

A hurricane watch stretched northward all the way to the North Carolina line, and a tropical storm warning was in effect for most of the Florida Keys.

Upwards of 1.8 million people were told to seek shelter along the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, including all of Savannah, Ga. Nursing homes in coastal South Carolina had started moving residents inland on Monday.

Farther north, residents of North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island, still drying out from Hurricane Dennis a week earlier, also were urged to evacuate. Waves had already started washing across the island’s only highway.

Many of Ocracoke’s 700 residents had stayed to ride out Dennis. However, said Hyde County Manager Jeff Credle, ”I think most people are going to leave this time.”

National Guard forces were being activated in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Tolls were suspended on major Florida toll roads to speed traffic away from the coast.

”We’ll have a couple thousand troops in place to help with the evacuation and to ensure property safety,” South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges said.

”We are making fervent and feverish preparations here,” said Bill Bartlett, a Red Cross official in South Carolina.

Martha Thompson, 48, worried about being alone during a storm and went to a Miami-Dade County shelter Monday night.

”Unfortunately, my husband died last year, and I can’t stay alone in my house during this hurricane,” she said. ”I would not know what to do.”

South Carolina residents with memories of Hurricane Hugo – which battered the coast with 135 mph wind 10 years ago – packed up as best they could.

”How do you prepare for a storm that’s going to wipe you out?” asked Buster Browne, a McClennanville, S.C., resident who rode out Hugo, a Category 4 storm.

”Category 1 or 2, you run out and buy plywood and do what you can,” he said. ”If a Category 5’s going to hit you, what the hell are you going to do? Get the stuff you want to save and leave town.”

Only two Category 5 hurricanes have hit the United States since records have been kept: the 1935 Labor Day storm that slammed the Florida Keys, killing 423 people, and Hurricane Camille, which roared ashore in Mississippi in 1969, killing 256.