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Coast prepares for worst as Floyd nears

The Associated Press

COCOA BEACH, Fla.

Wednesday, September 15, 1999

COCOA BEACH, Fla. – Monstrous Hurricane Floyd moved closer toward the Southeast today, sending wind-whipped rain through Florida’s deserted streets and leaving coastal residents from Georgia to Virginia bracing for a more severe thrashing.

Floyd’s eye was expected to continue to swirl over the Atlantic before making landfall Thursday near Wilmington, N.C. In a weakened form, it could then make life miserable for residents all the way up to Maine.

The storm packed 135 mph wind this morning, making it a weak Category 4 storm. It stayed far enough off the coast to spare Florida from the worst. But tropical storm-force wind up to 73 mph raked the state’s eastern coast. Rain fell along the coast from Florida to North Carolina.

”What we’ve been spared in Florida may just be transplanted to the Carolina coast,” said Jeremy Pennington, a National Hurricane Center forecaster.

”Today we are breathing a bit of a sigh of relief, although it’s still a major storm,” Gov. Jeb Bush said this morning on NBC’s ”Today.” ”We’re encouraging people to watch carefully before they go back home.

At 8 a.m. EDT, the storm’s center was about 190 miles east-southeast of Jacksonville. Floyd was moving north-northwest near 14 mph, and a turn to the north and increase in speed was expected later today.

A hurricane warning remained in effect from Florida’s Sebastian Inlet, near the midpoint of Florida’s eastern coast, to the North Carolina-Virginia line. A hurricane watch continued from there to Chincoteague, Va.

Forecasters expected rainfall totals of 5 to 10 inches in areas along Floyd’s path.

”A lot of that is falling over water, but there is some rainfall over north Florida and the Carolinas,” forecaster Jack Beven said.

Hours before daybreak, the streets of Daytona Beach were an abandoned, rain-washed grid. In Bunnell, 25 miles north, Flager County officials reported tides at 3 to 4 feet above normal, and up to 1,400 customers were without power.

”We’ve had a lot of squall lines coming through the last several hours,” said Jon Fillinger, a county emergency management chief. ”We’ve got gusts, the kind you’d see in a strong thunderstorm.”

With its hurricane force wind extending 125 miles from the center and tropical storm force wind up to 290 miles outward, Floyd looked to spare few North Carolina cities from its fury.

”We hope and pray for the best,” North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt said. ”But this looks real mean.” Just last week, parts of North Carolina’s coast were swamped by Hurricane Dennis, and today, parts of the state’s Outer Banks got their second evacuation order in as many weeks.

Floyd was expected to move inland near the North Carolina-South Carolina line, not far from Wilmington, N.C., ”and then run inland along the coastline right on up through Maine,” hurricane center forecaster Trisha Wallace said today.

The track would take Floyd over the parts of Virginia, the District of Columbia, the northern Chesapeake Bay, near Philadelphia, west of New York City, northwestern Connecticut, western Massachusetts, central New Hampshire, Maine and into Newfoundland, Canada, by Saturday night.

Floyd will still have 52 mph wind when it hits the Bangor, Maine, area, forecasters predicted.

Earlier, nearly 2 million people were told to evacuate the Southeast seaboard as Floyd’s path remained uncertain. Florida undertook what officials called its largest-ever peacetime evacuation, with tens of thousands of motorists making an epic, halting journey north and west. Georgia and South Carolina residents also streamed inland.

Danny Mills, a 34-year-old Kennedy Space Center worker, became stuck in traffic, managing only 15 miles in 2 1/2 hours. He became so frustrated he simply turned around and returned to the Cape, where 102 other workers had volunteered to stay behind.

”You made a mile every five to 10 minutes,” he said. ”There were people going on the sides of the road. People were getting angry.”

Walt Disney World closed early for the first time in its 28-year history, and other resorts also shut down. The Navy sent ships to ride out the storm at sea rather than risk damage in port, and military aircraft were flown inland to bases from Maine to Texas.

President Clinton cut short his trip to New Zealand and issued pre-emptive disaster declarations for Florida and Georgia to enable recovery efforts to begin as quickly as possible.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a staging area in Atlanta, stockpiling food, ice, water, cots, sleeping bags, blankets, generators, portable toilets, flashlights and plastic sheeting so that they could be delivered to hard-hit areas in a hurry.

Hundreds of airline flights in and out of Florida and Georgia were canceled, and Amtrak suspended train service into and out of Miami, scrambling the plans of vacationers and business travelers around the country.

In Garden City, west of Savannah, Ga., Michael Tarvin and his girlfriend, Robin Hill, took a break at a shopping center after sitting in bumper-to-bumper, three-lanes-wide traffic.

”I’m going west, as far west as I can get,” Tarvin said.