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Hurricane Jeanne Batters Bahamas, Heads For Florida - 2004-09-25

Hurricane Jeanne strengthened on Saturday as it passed through the Bahamas, causing heavy flooding and extensive wind damage to the island chain. The center of Jeanne will strike Florida early Sunday, becoming the fourth major hurricane to hit the state this year. Hurricane Jeanne is expected to cause extensive damage to the same part of Florida that Hurricane Frances struck three weeks ago.

Flooding from Hurricane Jeanne has already killed more than 1,000 people in Haiti, and the storm is expected to cause considerable damage to Florida's hurricane-battered east coast.

No state in the United States has been struck by four hurricanes in one year since 1886, when four storms hit Texas. Since August, hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan have killed at least 70 people in Florida, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Authorities say Jeanne is on track to strike the same area around Palm Beach County that Hurricane Frances devastated three weeks ago.

Forecasters say Jeanne is now a category three storm, on a scale of one to five, with winds higher than 180 kilometers per hour. Dan Brown, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, says Jeanne could get stronger, before its center strikes land in Florida early Sunday.

"It could strengthen more before making landfall," said Dan Brown. "Right now, we think it will remain a Category Three, but it could become a Category Four [210-kilometer-an-hour winds]. That will cause extensive damage, a lot of power outages, a storm surge and flooding of about four to eight feet [15 meters]. Also, there will be about five to 10 inches of rain, as it tracks up the Florida peninsula tomorrow [Sunday]."

Authorities urged more than three million people living in coastal areas to evacuate as Jeanne approached. However there were few indications by late Saturday that millions of Florida residents were heeding that advice. Bob Oldakowski, the mayor of Key Biscayne, Florida, in Miami Dade County, says many Floridians are suffering from hurricane fatigue, and are choosing to wait out the storm at home.

"This is a serious storm, and, I think, the reality of hurricane fatigue is very evident on my island," said Bob Oldakowski. "We are Zone A, so when anything happens, Key Biscayne has to evacuate. This is the fourth time in five weeks, and people are tired. My sense is that people are making decisions based more on fatigue, and less on 'whether this is the right decision for me and my family.'"

Scientists say tropical weather patterns shifted about 10 years ago, to become more conducive to the formation of more and much stronger hurricanes. They say this year's pattern of so many storms striking the state of Florida is due in part to a ridge of high pressure that is preventing some storms from moving north, as they would normally do.

Dan Brown of the National Hurricane Center says this pattern could stay in place until hurricane season officially ends on November 30.

"We have had a high pressure ridge that has been established over the eastern portion of the U.S. and the Atlantic," he said. "That has helped to steer these storms more westward, toward the Florida peninsula. In years past, we have had a trough in the eastern United States that has helped to steer some of them away from the east coast. This pattern has persisted, and it could continue. We could actually have more storms in the next month or so. We still have about a month left in the peak of the hurricane season."

Meanwhile, in the flood-ravaged Haitian city of Gonaives, U.N. peacekeepers are struggling to maintain law and order after food riots broke out on Friday. Armed gangs stole food from distribution centers and from people who had received food aid over the past few days. Food convoys have been attacked in recent days as they approached the city.

More rain fell on Gonaives on Saturday, reportedly causing further panic in the city, which was largely destroyed by flood waters from Jeanne one week ago.