Frances takes a break in the Bahamas but Florida still braced for hurricane

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The Independent US

The whole of Florida was watching and waiting last night, trying to determine where Hurricane Frances - packing 130mph winds - was going to strike sometime later today. Hundreds of thousands of people who had left their homes were hunkered down in hotels and emergency evacuation centres, waiting for the huge storm - the size of Texas or France - to make land.

The whole of Florida was watching and waiting last night, trying to determine where Hurricane Frances - packing 130mph winds - was going to strike sometime later today. Hundreds of thousands of people who had left their homes were hunkered down in hotels and emergency evacuation centres, waiting for the huge storm - the size of Texas or France - to make land.

Frances - still more than 200 miles out to sea towards the south-east - was not helping the guessing game. Overnight its rate of progress towards the Florida coast had slowed to as little as 9mph, and the storm had been reduced to a category 3 hurricane. The Bahamas bore the brunt yesterday, with many buildings suffering severe damage. One man was reported to have died but the exact of his death was unclear.

But while the delay provided people in Florida with a few extra hours to prepare for the approaching storm, buying up the last remaining stocks of plywood and timber to board up their homes, the hurricane's "wobbles" made it extremely difficult to predict where it would strike the coast. Experts also warned that the overnight weakening of the hurricane could merely be a fluctuation that is typical with large storms and Frances could regain its former strength. If it does it could be the worst storm to hit the state since Andrew in 1992.

The state's governor, Jeb Bush, said: "The storm is still very unpredictable. We still don't know where it will land and we don't know if the storm will slow. It may gain strength and steam as it slows. It will be with us for a long while. It will take a long time for it to leave Florida. There will be substantial flooding and rainfall."

Experts said last night that it was still unclear precisely where the storm would hit land, pointing to three computer models which showed different options. One showed the storm hitting somewhere around Palm Beach, another suggested it would strike slightly farther north and a third showed it striking somewhere near Cape Canaveral, much farther up the coast. Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral was ordered to be completely evacuated for the first time because of the dual threat of high wind and storm surge.

Along a 300-mile stretch of the east coast, signs were already evident of the surge that precedes a hurricane. Seas were choppier than usual and winds were strengthening. By last night it was anticipated that winds would have reached more than 70mph. When the hurricane strikes, it could produce waves up to 14ft high. "I'm petrified," said Deena Dacey, who fled her home at Rockledge, near Cape Canaveral, for a hotel room near Busch Gardens in Tampa on the other side of the state. "If we can get settled, we might be OK, but I doubt it."

Some roads out of the evacuation areas were clogged with traffic. Bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched for miles on sections of Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along Florida's east coast. It was also heavy on Interstate 4, which connects the Atlantic resort of Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tampa on the Gulf coast.

Many streets in Miami were deserted, probably due to a combination of people staying indoors to sit out the storm and a lack of petrol, most filling stations having sold out. Jean Delpeche, a taxi driver, said: "I'm going to the airport for one more job and then I am going to go home and wait for this to end."

If, as seems certain, Frances strikes the Florida coast, it will be the first time since 1950 that two major storms - defined as having winds of at least 111mph - have hit Florida so close together. It comes on the heels of Hurricane Charley, which struck three weeks ago, causing 27 deaths and $7.4bn (£4.2bn) damage.

Nearly 15 million of Florida's total population of 17 million live in the areas that have been placed under hurricane watches and warnings. Governor Bush said: "I am a prayerful person and I will pray. I know a lot of other people are praying right now that this storm moves in a different direction."

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