Fran unleashes fury on US

Hurricane Fran, shaping up to be the most devastating storm to hit the United States' eastern seaboard in four years, last night unleashed its fury against the coast of the Carolinas. US authorities are bracing themselves for a damages bill running into billions of dollars.

The one piece of good news was that the South Carolina city of Charleston, a jewel of the old South battered by hurricane Hugo in September 1989, seem- ed likely to avoid a direct hit. But although Fran was forecast to come ashore some 100 miles to the north, at the resort of Myrtle Beach, it appears to be scarcely less fearsome.

With its 130 mph winds, flooding rains and massive sea surge, Hugo killed 27 people, destroyed 17,000 homes and caused $8bn of damage - $2bn in Charleston alone. Of recent hurricanes, only Andrew, which devastated the southern tip of Florida in August 1992 to the tune of $20bn, was worse.

Fran, clocked at a maximum of 120mph, is slightly less powerful. But as the storm approached land, hurricane force winds of 75mph or more extended 145 miles from the eye of the storm. Forecasters predicted that areas 100 miles inland could suffer its full impact, as it continued its north- westerly path to the mainland.

Shores in Fran's path were all but deserted last night. Almost half a million people have been ordered to evacuate by South Carolina's Governor, David Beasley. Those who have chosen to stay have boarded up windows and doors, but even that may not be protection against an ocean surge that could send a 12ft wall of water crashing into coastal buildings.

Fran is but a symptom of a deeper worry among US climatologists , that global climate change may be increasing the number and intensity of Atlantic tropical cyclones.

A system qualifies for a name when the winds reach tropical storm strength of 37 mph; when they reach 75mph, it becomes a hurricane. Eleven storms have been forecast between June and October this year, eight developing into hurricanes.

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