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Few storms compare to Frances

Meteorological DisastersTropical WeatherHurricanes and Tropical StormsWeatherOrlando WeatherWeather ReportsLabor Day

The satellite picture told the whole story: From the Florida Keys to Jacksonville, the behemoth called Frances smothered just about every one of Florida's 65,758 square miles.

"To have a hurricane this large and this strong covering an entire state . . . is almost unheard of," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center near Miami. "It is a rare event."

It's so rare, forecasters searched their historical bible, Tropical Cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean, for comparable storms but came up with few candidates. "It will probably be the biggest storm in a generation for Floridians," said Jim Lushine, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Miami. "It's like a mule: stubborn, slow -- and it kicked hard," he said.

And it wasn't done kicking Sunday. As Frances slogged its way to the Gulf of Mexico, leaving 5 million people without power and 2.8 million under an evacuation order, it churned toward Florida's only untouched coast in the Panhandle.

From one end of the state to the other, Floridians marveled at its reach.

"It's a wonder," said Ron Heck, owner of Harpoon Harry's restaurant in Key West. "Frances is nowhere near us -- shoot, people are evacuating to the Keys -- but every 30 minutes we get an outer band with huge gusts of winds and torrential downpours. It's so dark it's like night."

More than 400 miles to the north in the Panhandle city of Niceville, Janet Doman and her husband spent the day stowing their yard furniture and keeping close watch on The Weather Channel.

"I hope by the time it gets up here it has nothing left," Doman said. "This is the worst I've ever seen. It's really devastated the whole state."

There have been plenty of hurricanes with bigger bands of gale-force winds than Frances' 275-mile span. Enough that Lushine doubts Frances would make the top 10 in size if forecasters kept track of such things.

For example, Gilbert notched the record for the lowest barometric pressure ever logged in the Western Hemisphere, shroudingthe entire Gulf of Mexico before striking Cancún in 1988.

And there's certainly been much stronger storms than Frances, which weakened from a Category 4 to a Category 2 before crawling ashore at 1 a.m. Sunday at Sewall's Point near Stuart. Florida claims the record for that -- clinched on another Labor Day weekend 69 years ago.

The unnamed Labor Day storm of 1935 came across the Middle Keys as a top-of-the charts Category 5, with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph and gusts of more than 200 mph.

Neither is Frances the first to cross the state, pummeling most of the peninsula with gale-force winds. In 1960, Hurricane Donna, a powerful Category 4, also crossed the Middle Keys before plowing into Florida's southwest coast and churning across the state through Orlando and over Daytona Beach. Fort Meade recorded wind gusts of 150 mph during that tempest, Lushine said.

Few weather-watchers can remember a hurricane ever shrouding the state's more than 400-mile length after striking the east coast, exiting the west coast and taking aim at the Panhandle. For its broad impact, then, Frances may be one for the record books. Though as far as forecasters are concerned, though, it really has been just an above-average soaker.

Its legacy, however, may be related to the millions of affected Floridians who would beg to differ. Forecasters know complacency is related to experience. So if there is any good to come from Frances, they hope it will be that people heed their warnings and not treat future hurricanes lightly.

Visiting the National Hurricane Center on Sunday, Gov. Jeb Bush said that's the one bright spot. "Hurricane amnesia -- I don't think that's a problem any more in this state," he said as a Category 4 storm named Ivan raced across the Atlantic toward the eastern Caribbean.

Maya Bell can be reachedat mbell@orlandosentinel.com or 305-810-5003.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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