A storm the size of Texas whips through Florida resorts

State prepares for devastation as global warming comes home to Bush's America
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The Independent US

Hurricane Frances - a vast storm the size of Texas - yesterday began to hit the Florida coastline, bringing 100mph winds and torrential tropical rain.

Hurricane Frances - a vast storm the size of Texas - yesterday began to hit the Florida coastline, bringing 100mph winds and torrential tropical rain.

But a US government body admits - despite President George Bush's refusal to join international action to combat global warming - that it is likely to be only a foretaste of things to come as the climate changes.

Few parts of the state were expected to escape devastation last night as it anxiously awaited the full force of the storm, expected to hit the east coast in the early hours of the morning. It is forecast to move slowly across the state, finally blowing out over the Gulf of Mexico late today or early tomorrow.

"It is more of a marathon than a sprint," said Matt Mitchell of the Florida Emergency Operation Centre.

Yesterday the hurricane dumped about 20in of rain over the Bahamas, and it is expected to do much the same over the "Sunshine State", causing widespread flooding - which is usually the main cause of death in a storm such as this.

Two and a half million people have been ordered to leave their homes in the biggest mass evacuation in the state's history, many crowding into emergency accommodation in schools and community centres.

In Fort Pierce, Grace Teffel, 71, fled her mobile home, which is expected to be demolished by the winds. "I was crying. I took the things that were precious to me, my pictures," she said.

But 34-year-old Rachel Costigan, from Woking, had decided to open her Irish pub - O'Sheas - for business, even though it is in West Palm Beach, where the very centre of the storm is expected to make landfall.

"We're on high ground so we won't flood and we didn't want to evacuate," she said "Everyone else did. The motorway was looking like a car park and we didn't have anywhere to go."

John Dennis, an IT project manager from Sunderland who lives in Miami Beach, was equally phlegmatic - though he had booked a hotel room 20 miles inland in case he needed to evacuate.

"I think the American media are using the hurricane to push their ratings up," Mr Dennis said. "If you believe what the news is saying, you'd think everybody had battened down the hatches and left town. There are still people around."

But experts are getting increasingly worried. Last month beat all previous US records for big hurricanes and tornadoes, and equalled them for tropical storms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the US government's Department of Commerce, said that this was partly due to a warmer Atlantic Ocean.

One of the world's leading authorities predicted two more big hurricanes before November's presidential election. And things are expected to get worse as global warming takes hold.

NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, based at Princeton University, says on its website: "The strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the Earth's climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

This admission is the second official embarrassment for the Bush administration over climate change in less than 10 days. Just over a week ago, a report to Congress - signed by Mr Bush's two cabinet members in charge of commerce and energy - conceded that the warming of the world's climate over the past 30 years could only be explained by pollution from carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases".

The Bush administration has consistently played down the problem, and tried to scupper the internationally agreed Kyoto Protocol designed to combat it. Two years ago, the President personally repudiated a report by his own Environmental Protection Agency, which warned of climate change.

Last Friday, Professor William Gray of Colorado State University - one of the world's leading authorities on hurricanes, who has been predicting them for the past 21 years - increased his projections for this year.

He said that, for the first time since detailed investigations began 60 years ago, three major hurricanes had developed in the Atlantic.

The first, called Alex, grazed the Outer Banks of North Carolina on 3 August. The second, Charley, which devastated Florida last month, is expected by Professor Gray to be the "second most destructive" US hurricane ever, after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Meanwhile, five people were killed in Virginia last week as the state was lashed by Gaston, the third tropical storm to hit the US in August. And yet another, Ivan, was yesterday gathering in the Atlantic.

NOAA reported last week that 173 tornadoes had been reported across the US in August, far exceeding the previous record of 126, set in 1979.

Professor Gray predicts two more major hurricanes for this month and now expects this year to end with a total of 16 named storms, eight hurricanes and five major hurricanes.

"We expect this to be the eighth of the past 10 seasons that have had hurricane activity much above the last 55-year average," he said.

Additional reporting by Malcolm Fitzwilliams