For the third time in less than a month a tropical storm or hurricane made landfall over some portion of the Florida Peninsula. The first was Bonnie, a moderately strong tropical storm with 65 mph winds that made landfall over the Florida Panhandle. Right on the heels of Bonnie was Hurricane Charley, which was a rapidly intensifying Category Four Hurricane that made a sharp right turn prior to making landfall over the Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte area of Southwestern Florida.
Charley ended up being the most devastating hurricane to strike Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Andrew, which originally was a Category Four storm at landfall with 145 mph sustained winds and a 16.9 feet storm surge, was upgraded for its tenth anniversary in August, 2002 to a Category Five Hurricane. Andrew became one of three Category Five Hurricanes to make landfall in the United States with the other two being the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Camille in 1969.
While Frances was a Category Four Hurricane at one point, it made landfall over the Seawalls Point area of the East Central Coast of Florida as a Category Two storm with 105 mph winds. There were higher gusts though with Cape Canaveral receiving 124 mph gusts and other areas close by receiving winds in excess of major hurricane strength. Prior to hitting Florida, Frances slowly rolled over the Bahamas including San Salvador with sustained winds as high as 145 mph.
Finally, after slowing down to a halt, Frances gradually moved onshore and carved a path of devastation well inland across the Sunshine State with several towns getting hit for the second time after being beat up by Charley. Power was lost to some 6 million residents at one time or another. Meanwhile, another 2.8 million residents evacuated in advance of the powerful storm. Hurricane City, a web site run by Jim Williams managed to fight through a number of power outages and brown outs to bring their live coverage of the storm to its many viewers.
Hurricane Frances began its journey as a tropical depression on the night of August 24, 2004. Ironically, it was on that date that Hurricane Andrew made landfall in South Florida in 1992. Starting out as a formidable tropical wave off the coast of Africa several days earlier, became a depression less than 900 miles to the West-Southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. Winds at this point were typical of a depression at 30 miles per hour while its minimum central pressure of 1009 mb, or 29.80 inches of Hg.
Over the next 18 hours, the sixth depression of the 2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season would get stronger as its pressure dipped several millibars to 1005 mb, or 29.68 inches of Hg. In addition, satellite interpretation of the storm indicated that it was getting better organized. At 5 PM EDT on August 25, 2004, Tropical Storm Frances was born. Frances had emerged in the Atlantic about a week to ten days after Earl and Danielle faded following Charley's destructive path through Florida. Winds are now up to 40 mph, and it wasn't going to be through for a while.
Another eighteen hours passed, and Frances continued to get gradually stronger with its winds now at 70 mph just below the threshold for hurricane strength (74 mph) at 11 AM EDT on August 26, 2004. Then, six hours later at the 5 PM Advisory from the National Hurricane Center, Frances became the fourth hurricane of the 2004 season with winds now at 80 mph, and a minimum central pressure at 983 mb, or 29.03 inches of Hg. Frances continued to strengthen the rest of the day as it moved to the West-Northwest at 15 mph some 940 miles East of the Lesser Antilles.
The next 24 hours showed Frances rapidly deepening with its pressure dropping some 21 millibars to 962 mb, or 28.41 inches while its winds picked up to Category Three, or major hurricane strength at 115 mph at 11 PM EDT on Friday, August 27, 2004. The storm would level out for the next six hours before proceeding to deepen again to become a Category Four Hurricane. At the 5 PM Advisory from the NHC on Saturday, August 28, 2004, Frances had winds of 135 mph, and a minimum central pressure of 948 mb, or 27.99 inches of Hg, which made it the second Category Four Hurricane of 2004 behind Charley.
In spite of the menacing threat it posed to the Lesser Antilles, Frances would only provide a glancing blow at best to the Northern Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, which were well south of the storm. Over the next 60 to 72 hours, Frances remained on a steady slow pace with its winds still hovering around the 135 mph mark. Then at 2 PM on Tuesday, August 31, 2004, Frances moved toward the Southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands with winds increasing to 140 mph.
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Frances slowly moved up the Bahamian Island chain, remained much of its strength for the first day or so. The storm stayed north of the Turks and Caicos for the most part despite battering those islands quite a bit, but saved its best punch for the islands of San Salvador and Cat Island, which are pounded by the storm's ferocity. Grand Turk island had received a sustained wind of 72 mph as the eye passed to the Northwest.
During this time, winds sustained as high as 114 mph in San Salvador. Things also began to become quite grim for residents in Florida as high pressure was building over the Southeastern United States that would reinforce the subtropical ridge to the Northeast of Frances, and turn it westward toward the weary Florida Peninsula.
However, it would be a weaker Frances that would strike Florida as an upper level low developed in the Northern Bahamas, which forecasters pointed to as the factor that would steer Frances to the North toward the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But, the upper level low would dissipate leaving the high over the Southeast to be the key factor in Frances' fate. Or was it? Apparently some left over vorticity or spin left behind by the upper level low appeared to played a role in getting Frances to ingest some dry air, and go through a period of weakening.
Over the next couple of days, the winds waned and the pressure rose. After the storm reached its peak intensity at 145 mph winds and 937 mb minimum central pressure at 2 AM EDT on Thursday, September 2nd, 2004, Frances gradually declined. Over a period of nearly 72 hours, the storm's winds dropped some 40 mph off of its peak intensity while its pressure rose some 23 mb to 960 mb, or 28.35 inches. Nevertheless, the Southeastern Bahamas were pounded by the relentless fury of the now massive storm.
Frances had become a somewhat larger storm as a result of its weakening. In order to compensate for its slackening winds, the storm's diameter increased. A storm that had once only had hurricane force winds extending some 35 miles from its center, now had them extending over twice that at 85 miles from the center while tropical storm force winds extended some 200 miles. Wind gusts of up to 120 mph were being felt in the island of San Salvador, which took pretty much a direct hit from the strong hurricane.
Seeing that the ridge over the Southeast was building, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center had no other choice, but to issue a Hurricane Watch for much of the East Coast of Florida from Flagler Beach in the North to Florida City in the extreme South. The NHC also issued a Tropical Storm Watch for the middle and upper Florida Keys from South of Florida City to the Seven Mile Bridge including Florida Bay. Doom had pretty much set in on the Sunshine State. Even hurricane trackers such as Jim Williams of Hurricane City felt their stomachs get twisted up in knots hearing the news.
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Over the next 72 hours, the residents throughout the entire Hurricane Watch, and eventually Hurricane Warning area along Florida's East Coast would go through a number of highs and lows as Frances waited patiently for its opportunity to strike at its helpless victim. Frances did go through some ups and downs herself as it was in the midst of its weakening trend. The waning of the storm was the good news for Florida residents, but the bad news was that the storm was still over water, and that provided a chance for Frances to strengthen again before landfall.
Speaking of landfall, Frances made even time stand still with its hesitation, slowing down, drifting, and stationary motion. All of the storm's indecision made many Florida coastal residents go crazy. However, there was another silver lining in that the storm's slow and erratic motion provided folks with more time to evacuate, making necessary preparations, and get ready for the storm when it finally hit land. Meanwhile, effects from Frances could be felt far up the Eastern Seaboard with heavy surf advisories issued for as far north as the Jersey Shore.
In what is supposed to be the last unofficial weekend of the summer, and more importantly, the most busiest, many vacationers at the beach had to stay out of the water because of the high surf and dangerous rip currents that resulted from a tight pressure gradient between the deep low that was Frances, and high pressure over Canada. This latest round of bad weather added insult to injury for those businesses on the Jersey Shore, which experienced 32 rainy, or bad weather days this summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Back to Florida, the storm would eventually creep closer and closer as the Labor Day Weekend ensued. Strong tropical storm and minimal hurricane force winds could be felt in much of Palm Beach County as well as surrounding Martin and Broward Counties. Jim Williams, who was conducting a live broadcast over the internet at the Hurricane City web site, experienced numerous power outages from the early morning until his show finally went off the air at around 11:00 PM. These outages occurred in his area despite power lines being placed underground.
Finally, at 1 AM Sunday morning, September 5th, 2004, Frances came ashore at Seawall's Point, which is located north of Palm Beach, Florida. Winds gusted to 115 mph there while reaching 124 mph at Cape Canaveral, which experienced some of its worst storm damage ever. Over 13 inches of rain fell in some of the hard hit areas. Some places that were hit by Charley such as Orlando, were dealt a second blow from Frances. Boats were tossed around like little toys in a tub in places such as Rivera Beach. Meanwhile, Jim Williams, who is located in Delray Beach in the Southern portion of Palm Beach County was hit by the southern portion of the eyewall.
Some six million people were left without power. Around 15 people were killed either directly or indirectly by the storm including the son in law and grandson of Florida State Seminole Football Coach, Bobby Bowden, who were killed in a head-on collision on a rain slicked highway near Quincy, Florida. A number of college football games were cancelled including Jacksonville State versus Florida International, Florida State versus Miami, and the game scheduled between Jackson State and Howard was moved to a different location. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were also affected as they were unable to leave for their series in New York against the Yankees until Monday afternoon, September 6th.
But, these issues with the scheduling of sports games paled in comparison to the life altering changes made by Frances to everyday people's lives. The storm resulted in the evacuation of 2.8 million people in the state including 108,000 that went to nearby shelters. Both numbers were unprecedented for Florida although the largest peacetime evacuation occurred during Hurricane Floyd back in September, 1999 when 3,000,000 people evacuated. However, that evacuation involved several states including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Curfews were ordered in sixteen Florida counties including a 24 hour curfew in the barrier islands of Palm Beach and Singer Island. In addition, close to eight thousand National Guard troops were called in to maintain order. Some of the smaller airports including one in Tallahassee, the state capital, were closed. In addition, all of the popular theme parks were closed for up to two days, which resulted in a loss of $41 million dollars. A number of roads in Palm Beach County were simply unusable as they were submerged in up to four feet of water.
In Palm Bay, where the Weather Channel was stationed, several feet of beach was eroded away by the heavy surf, pounding waves, and storm surge that accompanied Frances' arrival. A bit further inland, the Northbound portion of Interstate 95 was closed in Palm Beach County because the road was simply washed out. Some roads caved in due to the pressure brought on by the heavy rains that resulted from the storm's slow forward motion across the Florida Peninsula. Frances weakened to a Tropical Storm as a result, but it made a second landfall near St. Mark's, Florida before finally winding down.
Even though the storm wound down quickly into a depression, Frances still managed to spread hefty rains across a good portion of the Southeastern United States including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. It also brought soaking and flooding rains to Western Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio while just bringing about an inch of rain to New Jersey well east of the now depression's path. Meanwhile, back in Florida, residents picked up the pieces, and groaned upon hearing the news of another storm in the Caribbean, Hurricane Ivan.
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