Hundreds of thousands of people in Florida were ordered to leave their homes by Thursday afternoon as Hurricane Frances churned toward the U.S. mainland. States of emergency were declared in both Georgia and Florida.
"If this storm comes in as a category 4 hurricane, the way it looks like it probably will, somewhere in the southern half of the state, the damage is just going to be unbelievable," warns CBS News Meteorologist George Cullen.
Packing 140 mph winds and on a course that has emergency officials in several Southeastern states jittery, the storm was expected to fluctuate in intensity as it headed for a Labor Day weekend rendezvous.
Frances forced hundreds of people to flee across the Caribbean after ripping through the British territory of Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas' prime minister warned that the mighty storm headed his way could be the worst in the archipelago nation's history.
Prime Minister Perry Christi "has characterized the potential of this storm as catastrophic," Silbert Mills, chairman of Emergency Management for the Bahamas island of Abaco, told CBS Radio News. Abaco has a population of 15,000 and is about 50 miles north of the main island.
Winds tore tin roofs off houses and plucked trees from the ground as it plowed through the Turks and Caicos on Wednesday.
No injuries were reported but hundreds fled their homes and many telephone lines were still down, said Karen Delancy, with the Turks and Caicos Emergency Management Service. More than a dozen houses were damaged.
Supermarkets along the Florida's Atlantic coast were stripped of bottled water and canned goods. In the pre-dawn hours Thursday, long lines were forming outside home supply stores in Palm Beach County, with dozens of people hoping for a chance to buy plywood or generators. A delivery truck's arrival was met with raucous applause.
"We can't control the kind of damage that Frances is going to cause, but if people are smart, lives can be saved," said Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
An evacuation order was issued for 300,000 Palm Beach County residents.
"It's the first time in my life I've ever had to do this, but we are packing things that we can never replace; that's photos and anything memorable and of course documents that you need to have just in order to get back here and get your life back together," said Palm Beach resident Frances Sherwood.
In Brevard County, structural engineer Byron Evetts was covering his home's windows. He said many people take the "ostrich effect," and don't protect their homes.
"They believe that by not paying attention or by dismissing it altogether it won't happen. That's not the way life is," he said.
Forecasters said Frances could begin affecting Florida late Thursday, less than three weeks afterraked the state's west coast with 145 mph wind, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing 27 people.
"This is a huge storm. It's about three or four times the size of what Charley was, even though the winds are the same," said Cullen. "It's just so expansive that we're going to see massive destruction far-reaching rather than just a small area."
Late Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for about 280 miles of Florida coast from Florida City to Flagler Beach. A hurricane watch means that those areas could start feeling hurricane conditions within 36 hours.
Court trials were canceled in 10 Florida counties, cruise lines kept their ships away and schools in nine counties were shuttered for Thursday; another three planned to do the same Friday. In St. Lucie County, a curfew was to go into effect Friday night.
The menacing strength of Frances coupled with the damage wrought by Hurricane Charley in Florida had even normally stoic coastal Georgians spooked.
"The people here are paying this one a little more attention than they normally would," said Tybee Island mayor Walter Parker. "When I went to the Post Office today, some people said they're a little more concerned. They saw what Charley did to Florida."
The storm and evacuations it forces are certain to spoil Labor Day outings and make a mess of holiday travel across the Southeast. Many businesses along the Atlantic coast began closing Wednesday, some not planning to reopen until Sunday at the earliest. Even Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center said it planned to shut down, leery of the havoc Frances could bring.
"It's going to hit somewhere," said Stephanie Graniero, who was having hurricane shutters attached to her store Oh My Bod along a deserted commercial strip of Delray Beach. "You have to try to stay calm and not panic. If it's going to hit, you have to be prepared."
"Hurricane Floyd was in this same position back in 1999, and there was a massive evacuation from Florida, and at the last minute, it turned to the north, and it didn't make landfall until it hit North Carolina," said Cullen. "So everybody in the Southeast, all the way from the Carolinas down into the keys (should) really respect this storm. This is a powerful, dangerous hurricane."
Charley did $7½ billion in damage in Florida, and Frances looks like Charley's big sister — the one with a terrible temper, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann.
Before Charley, the area went 40 years between major hurricanes. Soon it could see two in three weeks.
The last time two major storms hit Florida so close together was 1950, when Hurricane Easy hit the Tampa area and Hurricane King struck Miami about six weeks later. Neither of those storms were as powerful as Charley or Frances.