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Dangerous storm nears U.S.

BY GEORGE PIPER | TALLAHASSEE, Fla. | September 14, 1999

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Sept. 14, 1999) -- As the most dangerous hurricane in three decades continued its U.S. approach, millions were evacuated while still holding out hope that Florida could avoid a direct hit. But even if Florida sees just the edge of Hurricane Floyd -- on its own, highly dangerous -- Georgia and South Carolina could bear the brunt of the storm's force.

The storm's maximum sustained winds were at 145 mph on Tuesday afternoon. Although down from former 155-mph speeds, forecasters predicted fluctuations in strength, and a category five hurricane is still possible. Plus, hurricane-force winds extend 125 miles from the storm's center, which means Florida's coast will feel the impact even if Floyd stays out to sea.

Hurricane warnings are in effect across Florida's east coast to just south of Brunswick, Ga., while a hurricane watch extends from Brunswick to Little River Inlet, S.C. Flooding five to 10 feet above normal tides and up to 10 inches of rain are possible in Florida if the eye reaches the coast. The powerful storm prompted heavy surf advisories as far as Montauk Point, N.Y.

Much of the northwest Bahamas is under a hurricane warning with Floyd's eye expected to cross that area late Tuesday afternoon. Storm surges there could reach 20 feet with rainfall up to 10 inches.

For Florida, the good news is that Floyd is expected to turn northwest and avoid a direct landfall in the Sunshine State.

Officials ordered mandatory evacuations for some 1 million residents along much of Florida's east coast, and several coastal counties closed schools and public offices on Tuesday and Wednesday. With emergency management officials calling the storm potentially more destructive than Hurricane Andrew, most residents are complying with the order, said John Joyce, spokesman for the Florida's Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

With the entire coast at risk from storm surge and high winds reaching well inland, there is heightened concern about potential damage. After Andrew, the state believes it is much better prepared for hurricanes, added Joyce, but even the best efforts could be futile in the face of a category five storm.

Florida is readying two Rapid Impact Assessment Teams to deploy from Tallahassee to assess initial damage. Other state agencies are coordinating personnel to manage everything from medical services and traffic flow to food distribution and relief shelters. The state's Department of Banking and Finance authorized financial institutions in Floyd's path to close until the emergency is passed.

"Once the storm moves out of the area, we'll move our team in to make assessments and begin to get aid to the people who need it the most," Joyce said.

Georgia deployed 800 National Guard members to the state's six coastal counties to aid with evacuations and security. Camden, Chatham and Glynn counties have issued voluntary evacuation orders.

South Carolina, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Hugo 10 years ago, is monitoring the storm closely and already has sent 1,000 National Guard and law enforcement personnel to its coast. The state also is prepared to open 96 shelters if Floyd turns its way.

Faith-based groups also are ready to respond when Floyd strikes.

Florida Interfaiths Networking in Disaster has contacted interfaith coordinators throughout the storm area, and is working with state officials to coordinate transportation of stored plastic covering to survivors.

In the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, the Salvation Army placed more than 75 disaster relief teams on alert and secured supply warehouses.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) team members in the southeast are on alert and are working with presbyteries and churches to make necessary preparations, according to Stan Hankins, head of PDA's U.S. disaster response. PDA -- one of many denominational disaster response organizations on alert -- will remain in close contact with members of the team and provide damage assessment and response reports.

If Floyd hits the U.S. mainland as a category five hurricane, it would be only the third such storm this century to strike land. A 1935 hurricane -- the most intense ever to reach the shore -- ripped through the Florida keys, killing 408 people. In 1969, Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana and caused deadly flooding as far north as Virginia. That storm killed 258 people and destroyed or severely damaged nearly 20,000 homes.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Gert continues to glide westward across the Atlantic with a projected path north of Puerto Rico. With maximum sustained winds of 105 mph on Tuesday, Gert is expected to strengthen.

Posted Sept. 14, 1999

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