Hurricane Frances finally came ashore late Saturday night, after what seemed like an interminable waiting period for most Floridians, especially those on the East Coast. The giant storm packed hurricane force winds as far out as 85 miles on each side of the center, but fortunately, by the time Frances arrived those winds had slowed to around 105 mph (168 kp/hr).
Although still classed by Miami’s National Hurricane center as a category 2 storm, Frances packed a lot less punch than the category 4 storm that had been roiling the waters of the Northern Caribbean for over a week. However, even at lesser speeds, the winds, combined with torrential rains and high tides, caused extensive damage along a large portion of the eastern Florida coast.
The storm first came ashore near Stuart, about 40 miles above Daytona Beach, and the damages are heaviest in that region. According to news reports between 2 and 4 million homes along the coast and further inland are without electricity, as Frances downed power lines and knocked out transformers. No work could be started to restore power until the storm had passed.
What Frances lost in sheer firepower it almost made up for by its enormous size. When it struck Florida a band of wind and rain extended the entire length of the East Coast from the Keys to Jacksonville and even into Georgia. The AP reported that two persons in the Gainesville area had died from accidents caused by falling trees. Two people in the Bahamas were also killed by storm related incidents. Frances was still strong enough to cause extensive damage, especially to vulnerable mobile homes and Florida’s marinas.
The general consensus for the insurance industry is one of relief – it could have been a lot worse. California-based Risk Management Solutions (RMS) had earlier put damage estimates at between $2 and $20 billion (not terribly meaningful numbers, given the range). It later revised that estimate, stating “potential insured losses for Hurricane Frances have decreased as the storm has weakened. Currently, losses are expected to be in the range of $2 to $10 billion, with the greatest uncertainty remaining in the storm’s intensity forecast.”
As Frances crossed Florida at a leisurely pace, it weakened substantially. The NHC currently classifies it as a tropical storm, but has kept hurricane warnings in place. Frances is currently over the Gulf of Mexico, and is expected to strike the Florida Panhandle by 8:00 p.m. EDT tonight. It is moving toward the west-northwest at around 10-mph (16 kp/hr). Maximum sustained winds are around 65 mph ((105 kp/hr).
The NHC warned, however, that as Frances moves across warmer waters it could “possibly become a hurricane again before making landfall in the Florida Panhandle.” The NHC also confirmed that “Frances remains a large tropical cyclone with tropical storm force winds extending outward up to 200 miles from the center and a gradual turn toward the northwest is expected by this afternoon.”