Hurricane twice size of Charley to hit US

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The Independent US

Around two-and-a-half million residents of Florida were yesterday told to evacuate their homes and seek safety as the threat of Hurricane Frances edged ever closer, its menacing presence less than 400 miles away.

Around two-and-a-half million residents of Florida were yesterday told to evacuate their homes and seek safety as the threat of Hurricane Frances edged ever closer, its menacing presence less than 400 miles away.

As the hurricane's 140mph winds whipped and lashed the islands of the southern Bahamas, almost the entire 300 miles of Florida's east coast was placed on hurricane warning, meaning hurricane conditions were expected within 24 hours. Experts predicted the category four hurricane would strike somewhere on Florida's southern and central east coast late on Friday or early Saturday.

"We can't control the kind of damage that Frances is going to cause, but if people are smart, lives can be saved," warned Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Centre.

The first counties to order mandatory evacuation orders were West Palm Beach and Broward where up to 500,000 residents on coastal and low-lying areas were considered to be at risk from waves that could be up to 15 feet high. Those in mobile homes, shown in previous hurricanes to offer no protection to the storm, were also told to leave and find an alternative place to stay. Thousands of tourists were also forced to leave.

Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne told residents that if they refused to leave evacuation zones, police would be collecting names and phone numbers for their next of kin.

Soon after Broward County made its decision, Miami-Dade County also issued an evacuation order for people living on the coast, including the Miami Beach district.

In Miami Beach, with its streets of art deco hotels, people were boarding up windows with plywood and steel, saying they were not prepared to take the chance that the hurricane would strike further to the north. "I was around during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and this is pretty much the same size," said Eddie Nunez, general manager of the Kent Hotel in Miami Beach, as workmen hurriedly placed steel covers over the windows. "The thing that is a real worry about here on the beach is the flooding. You canít afford to risk it."

Elsewhere along Florida's east coast, DIY and hardware stores were besieged with people queuing up to buy timber to board up their homes and other emergency supplies. Numerous stores along the east coast shoreline reported running out of bottled water and canned food as thousands of people prepared to spend the coming nights in emergency shelters.

What has added to the anxiety is the uncertainty as to where Frances will hit the coast. Experts at the hurricane centre have been running various computer models to try and predict which direction the hurricane will take over the next 24 hours.

Overnight on Wednesday it that appeared that the hurricane had shifted slightly to the south in its likely course, suggesting that southern Florida would be hit. As Thursday progressed it seemed, in turn, that the eye of the hurricane was moving slightly to the north.

What appears certain is that Hurricane Frances will cause considerable damage when it does strike. Images of the hurricane provided by satellite and by naval planes flying above the storm, suggest it is at least twice the size of Hurricane Charley which struck just three weeks ago, killing 27 people and costing $7.4bn.

Experts also said that the unusually slow speed of the storm, at 15mph, meant that when it does strike the damage will be worse than if the storm was moving more quickly and passed through more speedily.

One of the challenges for emergency services was ensuring local people took the warnings seriously. Yesterday the weather was calm and sunny and officials, including Governor Jeb Bush, warned people not to be fooled.

The plans of thousands of British holidaymakers were also thrown into disarray due to airport closures in the US. Virgin Atlantic announced that 28 flights had been cancelled over the weekend, affecting more than 9,000 passengers booked to fly today, tomorrow and Sunday to Orlando or Miami.

In the Bahamas, where flights were curtailed and cruise ships were forced to switch their routes, the Prime Minister, Perry Christie said his country faced the most intense storm in its history. "We have made every human effort to prepare ... we are ultimately in the hands of God," he said. "We have faced many such perils in the course of the centuries and have always pulled through. With God's grace we will do so again."