FORT PIERCE, Fla. - Hurricane Jeanne got stronger, bigger and faster Saturday, forcing anxious Floridians to hurriedly shutter their homes and buy last-minute supplies as the storm bore down on the state's Atlantic coast with winds near 115 mph. Three million people were told to evacuate.
If it hits Florida late Saturday or Sunday as predicted, it would be the fourth hurricane to slam the state this season, a scenario unmatched in more than a century. Jeanne strengthened into a Category 3 storm Saturday, and Jack Beven, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, warned that a Category 4 storm with winds of at least 131 mph "is not out of the question."
Already blamed for more than 1,500 deaths in Haiti, Jeanne was poised to slam some of the same areas hit by the earlier storms, potentially transforming still-uncleared piles of debris into deadly missiles. Meteorologists said the storm's outer bands could bring wind and heavy rain to Florida by Saturday afternoon and its expected northern turn could happen after the storm strikes land, sending Jeanne up and through east and central Florida.
Across Palm Beach County, residents frantically gathered last-minute supplies Saturday after awaking to a forecast that had Jeanne making a direct hit in less than 18 hours.
"I can imagine a lot of people here this morning started freaking out," said Lynn Tarrington of Lake Worth, who was leaving her home near the water. "Yesterday I was hoping we wouldn't lose power again and now I'm hoping I have a house left when I come back."
Airlines began canceling flights at airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which were planning to close, stranding some passengers. Authorities urged storm-weary residents to speed up plans to secure their property and evacuate if necessary.
Jean McArthur, of West Palm Beach, was buying supplies at a Wal-Mart. She had bags full of water, batteries, flashlights and snacks for her three kids.
"We've all been thinking, `This really can't come at us again.' Now that it's just a few hours away, everyone is being forced to take it seriously. I've stopped laughing about it at this point," said McArthur, 39.
No state has been struck by four hurricanes in one season since Texas in 1886. Jeanne could turn into the latest in a devastating chain of hurricanes that have rattled southwest and central Florida (Charley), the state's midsection (Frances) and Florida's Panhandle (Ivan). Combined, the storms have caused billions of dollars of damage and at least 70 deaths in Florida.
Gov. Jeb Bush warned that Jeanne could be stronger than Frances, which caused more $4.1 billion in insured damages in Florida and killed at least 24. He referenced the destruction of Ivan, which devastated barrier islands in the Panhandle and killed at least 23.
"I can't imagine someone not taking this seriously after the last six weeks," Bush said Saturday.
About 3 million people were under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders, state emergency operations spokesman Mike Stone said.
Charley hit Aug. 13 as a Category 4 on the Safford-Simpson scale with winds of 145 mph. Frances hit on Labor Day weekend as a Category 2 with winds of 105 mph, and Ivan hit last week as a strong Category 3 with winds of 130 mph.
Crews with heavy machinery worked Friday to clear the mess of flattened homes, torn roofs and snapped trees left by Frances. But many acknowledged it was a losing battle.
"They're trying their best but there's a tremendous amount of debris out there. Realistically it doesn't really seem like it would be possible to get it all gathered before this storm hits," said Theresa Woodson, a spokeswoman for Indian River County.
After causing deadly flooding in Haiti, Jeanne looked early in the week like it had turned north and was headed safely out to sea, but it made a jagged loop that brought it toward the Bahamas and Florida.
At noon EDT, Jeanne was centered about 135 miles east of the Palm Beach area and was moving west at 14 mph, slightly faster than Friday. Sustained winds were 115 mph, up from 105 earlier Saturday. A hurricane becomes a Category 3 storm when it reaches sustained winds of 111 mph.
After its expected northward turn over the Florida peninsula, Jeanne was expected to stay inland over Georgia and the Carolinas through Tuesday.
Hurricane warnings were posted from south of Miami to St. Augustine in northeast Florida, and a hurricane watch was up from St. Augustine northward to Altamaha Sound, Ga. A hurricane watch also was issued for Florida's Gulf Coast from Englewood in southwest Florida to the Suwanee River north of the Tampa Bay area.
Rainfall totals of 5 to 10 inches were expected in the storm's path, and flooding could be a major concern because previous hurricanes have already saturated the ground and filled canals, rivers and lakes.
The timing of the storm raised concern for Jews observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, which ends at sundown Saturday. During that period, observant Jews usually do not work, carry cash or travel by car, all of which could hamper hurricane preparations.
"I don't know if I will evacuate or not," physician Armand Braun said as he stocked up supplies at a grocery store in Satellite Beach. "Jewish law says you put Jewish requirements aside if there is any danger."
Taking nothing for granted, residents up and down Florida's Atlantic coast went about what has become an all-too-familiar ritual: boarding up and stocking up, with some people taking advantage of supplies still on hand from Frances and Charley. Many South Florida gas stations ran dry.
"We probably have the highest per-capita battery ownership in the world," said Bush.
Under gathering black clouds on Saturday, Judy Smith and her family stopped at a gas station in the beach hamlet of Cocoa after leaving their homes on the south end of Merritt Island. Hurricane Frances spared their homes but blew down surrounding trees.
"What can you do?" asked Judy Smith. "You've got your house insurance, and everything in it can be replaced.
"Everything I care about is right here," she said, motioning to her family.