CBSN

Floridians Head For The Hills

Mourning people hold Polish national flags and flags of the Solidarity union during a national memorial service in Pilsudski Square in Warsaw on Saturday, April 17, 2010 in Warsaw, Poland. Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash in Russia last Saturday. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
Fleeing what could be the most powerful storm to strike Florida in more than a decade, residents and tourists jammed highways and shelters Friday as Hurricane Frances churned toward the Atlantic coast, where the state's second pummeling in three weeks could begin as soon as Saturday.

It's one of the greatest mass migrations of people in the state of Florida's history, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann.

"It's time to go. It's been time to go. You need to be moving to areas of safety now," Craig Fugate, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, told residents on CBS News' The Early Show.

About 2.5 million residents were ordered Thursday to head for safety — the largest evacuation in state history. Harried residents rushed to fortify their homes with plywood and storm shutters and waited in line, sometimes impatiently, for water, canned food and gas.

"We're running, we're running from the storm," said one man, who said he was bringing with him "a week's worth of clothes, a little camping stove to cook on."

CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick reports many don't know where they're headed, but won't be coming back until well after the storm has passed.

"I'm petrified," said Deena Dacey, who fled her Rockledge home near Cape Canaveral for a hotel room near Tampa's Busch Gardens on the other, leeward side of the state. "If we can get settled, we might be OK, but I doubt it."

Frances weakened Friday into a strong Category 3 storm packing 120 mph winds and the potential to push ashore waves up to 14 feet high, and was expected to begin affecting the state by Friday evening. Its top sustained winds were down from about 145 mph on Thursday, but forecasters said it could be fluctuation typical with large storms.

"There is a chance that in the next, say, 12 hours or so we could see Frances come back up to a Category 3, almost 4, storm, so we really just have to watch it almost hour-by-hour," said CBS News Meteorologist George Cullen.

"It still looks like it's going to make landfall somewhere north of West Palm Beach and south of Melbourne, Fla.," Cullen said.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic clogged state highways. Traffic backed up for miles on sections of Interstate 95, the main north-south highway along the state's east coast, and was heavy along Interstate 4, which connects Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tampa in central Florida.

"There's no problems reported, it's just due to the fact that most people waited to the last minute to evacuate," Lt. James Shaw of the Florida Highway Patrol told CBS Radio News.

Frances' landfall would represent the first time since 1950 that two major storms have hit Florida so close together. It comes on the heels of Hurricane Charley, which hit on Aug. 13 and inflicted billions of dollars in damage to homes, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands and causing 27 deaths as it crossed from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic.

With its imposing size — a cloud cover about as big as the state of Texas — Frances had the potential to ravage the state with its slow movement. Forecasters said the slower the storm moves across the ocean, the longer its winds and rain could linger, increasing the possibility of serious damage.

"The good news is for the procrastinators out there, that buys you a little more time, so take advantage of it," said Jaime Rhome, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

But, he warned, a slow moving storm like this could bring 10 to 20 inches of rain.

The hurricane warning covered most of the state's eastern coast, from Florida City, near the state's southern tip, to Flagler Beach, north of Daytona Beach. Forecasters could not say with certainty where Frances would come ashore, just that the core would strike late Saturday.

About 14.6 million of Florida's 17 million people live in the areas under hurricane watches and warnings.

"I am a prayerful person and I will pray. I know a lot of other people are praying right now that this storm moves in a different direction," said Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush estimated 2.5 million residents were under evacuation orders in 15 Florida counties based on the state's projections of people living in evacuated areas. Individual counties reported at least 1.32 million residents ordered evacuated.

The governor asked his brother, President Bush, to declare Florida a federal disaster area and make storm victims eligible for recovery aid. Federal officials promised they had enough people and supplies in the state to handle two disaster-relief operations at once.

"I've got half my house in my car," said Doris Johnson, a retiree who waited outside a shelter with her husband, hauling a pile of blankets, pillows, and water. "I just want it over with, and hope and pray no one gets hurt."

"I'm just afraid I'm going to lose everything," Cocoa Beach resident Rachel Wilkerson told CBS News. "I'm scared to death. I'm scared to death."

The storm and the evacuations it forced were spoiling Labor Day trips and disrupting holiday travel across the Southeast.

In Melbourne, the 300-room beachfront Holiday Inn Beach Resort had been fully booked until guest started checking out Thursday under an evacuation order. General manager Tim Michaud estimated at least $100,000 in lost revenue.

"That's just rooms," Michaud said. "We're also losing functions for the weekend."

Airports were packed with people hoping to depart before all flights were grounded. Hotels and motels inland filled up, and gas stations ran dry.

Much further up the coast, it could be a busy Labor Day holiday weekend for lifeguards along the Jersey shore.

The National Weather Service says Hurricane Frances is generating rip currents along Garden State beaches even though it's 1,000 miles away in the North Atlantic. That could be dangerous for swimmer, but good for surfers.

The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral was ordered completely evacuated for the first time because of the dual threats of high wind and storm surge.

Many businesses along the Atlantic coast began closing Wednesday. Residents flocked to the stores that remained open, hoping to pick up bottled water and canned goods while long lines formed outside home supply stores for scarce plywood or generators.

"Ain't no bread. Ain't no water," grumbled Anita Walker, 53, staring at empty shelves at a Tampa Wal-Mart. "When they say hurricane, they buy everything."

Frances was about twice the size of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that destroyed much of southern Miami-Dade County. The last time two major storms hit Florida so close together was 54 years ago, when Hurricane Easy hit the Tampa area and Hurricane King struck Miami about six weeks later. Neither storm was as powerful as Charley or Frances — a scary thought for many Floridians.

"We've took enough clothes for three days," said Revonda Barrs, 44, of Vero Beach, who stopped at a Port St. Lucie gas station. "We boarded our dog and we basically left all our other possessions in the hands of God."