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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Hurricane Frances: Downgraded To Tropical Storm

Aired September 5, 2004 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Back to our continuing coverage of now tropical storm Frances in a minute, but first here's what else is happening in the news. President Bush has declared Florida a disaster area. He was campaigning in West Virginia today. The president's action makes Federal funding available for people in Florida with storm-related property damage.
Two strong earthquakes rattled parts of western and central Japan today. They trigger tsunami warnings and evacuations among the Japanese coast. At least 14 people were injured but no major damage is being reported.

Iraqi officials say a man detained north of Baghdad is being given a DNA test to confirm his identity. The Iraqi defense ministry says he's Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, deputy commander of armed forces under Saddam Hussein and number six on the U.S. most-wanted list. However, the U.S. military is skeptical.

Hello, again, I'm Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN center in Atlanta. We're continuing our special coverage of now tropical storm Frances, downgraded just minutes ago from a hurricane. Up first this hour, the latest on its track through Florida. Frances, now a tropical storm, at last check was centered 20 miles east of Tampa. It is slowly heading towards the Gulf of Mexico where it could possibly regain some strength. Maximum sustained winds right now are 70 miles per hour. One death has been reported so far. It was a traffic related incident in Gainesville, Florida. Rain apparently is covering almost the entire state so far, and the National Hurricane Center issued tornado warnings for central Florida and parts of south Georgia as well.

But the weather isn't the only trouble authorities are facing. Looting has also become a problem with several people arrested in Orange County. Police say some of the incidents happened at two men's clothing stores, a restaurant and apparently a liquor store. The eye of the storm came ashore early this morning just east of Stuart. This was the scene about 20 miles from there in Fort Pierce when it was a hurricane.

The city's new marina is a total loss with dozens of boats and yachts smashed into the walls and people across Florida are coping with driving rains and blustery winds throughout. This was the scene in St. Augustine. Almost a foot of rain has fallen in some parts of Florida causing scattered flooding all over the state. Jacqui Jeras is in the weather center and now some relief that it has now been downgraded to a tropical storm. But Florida is not out of woods yet and certainly that applies to Alabama and places like Georgia as well. Right?

JACQUI JERAS, METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely going to be affecting a lot of people overall. That's something else we need to keep in mind over the next couple of days. If you live in Alabama, if you live in Georgia, if you live in Tennessee. If you live into the western Carolinas, you are going to be dealing with some flooding from Frances Monday into Tuesday and likely moving on up to the north as we head into Wednesday as well.

As you mentioned, it is now a tropical storm. We'll take anything we can get in terms of this thing weakening but it's not all that dramatic. We were 75 miles per hour last time. We're down to 70 now. So the difference isn't all that great but we're happy to see that.

You can see here on the radar picture we were talking about a tornado warning in central Florida. We just have a tornado watch across central Florida. But there are a couple of warnings, if we go over to our PA-7 to the VIPIR system now and want to show you a different look at these and really be able to zoom in and give you a good idea of the location of some of these tornado warnings.

If we could please go to our VIPIR system and I would be able to show you that on PA-7. There we go and there you can see a broad view of the storm. We're going to zoom on in. We were talking about how St. Augustine earlier, well, the tornado warning is not going to St. Augustine, but it's in your county into northern St. John's County and northeastern Florida. This includes the city of Fruit Cove until 5:45.

There you can see where St. Augustine is and here's our storm up here. It's gone off to the west of I-95 and it's moving pretty rapidly off to the west too about 55 miles per hour. We also have a tornado warning up in Georgia. This one for western Pierce and also for northern Ware County, and southeast Georgia including the city of Blackshear. That one is in effect until 5:45 eastern time as well.

We've been getting the outer bands here, you get these little storms kind of ricocheting off of them here and a lot of vorticity (ph) we call it or a lot of spin here into the atmosphere. Most of these are weak tornadoes, but we did have a report in Crescent City, Florida, one actually touching down from law enforcement there, but haven't heard any reports of damage.

Let's go back to the weather maps because I do have an updated forecast track that I want to show you here and this shows the latest path and the latest intensity now on Frances making its way offshore late for tonight. Maybe you can see that icon change and when you see the hole in the middle that means tropical storm. When you see it filled in that means hurricane status. So it looks like probably a weak category one as it makes landfall back into the Florida panhandle and then weakens further into a tropical depression, heading right on up towards Birmingham.

This area right here which is going to include over towards Atlanta into Birmingham, you guys could be seeing anywhere between maybe seven, eight inches of rainfall as we head into Monday and don't want to forget about Ivan. Ivan is out there right now. that is a hurricane. This one making history as the strongest tropical cyclone, this far south latitude and this one has been strengthening up to 125 miles an hour. That is a category three hurricane, making it a major hurricane and additional strengthening is expected here in the next 24 hours. So we're going to have to look out for Ivan, still about 1,000 miles away from land fall but it's going to moving right into this area here we think by the middle of the week. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: Would I be correct Jacqui in saying that this would -- Ivan would be the fourth major hurricane of the season?

JERAS: I'll have to go back and check my numbers. I don't know off hand.

WHITFIELD: OK, I'll let you do that. I'll wait for you to tell us that. Thanks very much Jacqui.

WHITFIELD: All right. Well, let's check in with some of our local affiliate coverage in Florida. WSBN is based in Miami. Let's listen into how they are tracking this storm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: move towards the panhandle. Emergency workers are reminding people that we're not even halfway done yet.

CRAIG FUGATE: I realize you are frustrated. You want to come home, but I just need to ask you, please give us time to get in these areas, make sure they're safe and let this storm move on off our coast.

ADAM HOUSLEY: again, we have problems up here with the rain and the wind that goes on. Also they have at least 12 people arrested thus far for looting I should say, and authorities are telling us this area, there will be absolutely no way they'll allow anyone to price gouge, they'll be dealt with severely. In Melbourne, Adam Housley, seven news.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's good news Adam, thank you, no looters and no price gouging.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From the situation in Melbourne, want to check out what's happening after the storm in Oakland Park.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mike Dipasqualli (ph) is in Oakland Park for us, Mike?

MIKE DIPASQUALLI: We're in Oakland Park Blvd. off of 38th Street. If you take a look to my left here, this gigantic ficus tree was uprooted early last night. And the thing about this is that the home right next to it was not damaged. It just went over a fence, and then if you come around with me and hopefully we can hear from Wayne Catos (ph) here in a little while. The neighbor here said they heard a loud crash and nearly missed this house.

So Wayne was telling me earlier that his neighbor came over and they were pretty calm about the whole situation. He's actually said, look, this gigantic ficus tree was uprooted, missed my house, missed my car and I need a place to stay, so he actually stayed next door. The owner of this home is not home right now, so we don't have a chance to talk to him. But again, we have a ficus tree down on 38th Street off of Oakland Boulevard. And really in this area that we surveyed, it's the only damage at all. Here's Wayne talking about what he saw.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wayne, did you hear the ficus tree come down because it looks like it nearly missed your neighbor's house and nearly missed your house?

WAYNE CATOS: Yes, I heard a swoosh yesterday, probably about noon and my power was still on and my neighbor had come by and started pounding at my door to ask me if I was OK and I didn't realize it had come so close. And I came out and there were sparks and flames and everything from all the power lines and there's a whole line of power lines through there, but it was pretty scary at the moment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're in the house bunkered down trying to ride this out, and all of a sudden your neighbor comes pounding on your door?

CATOS: Right. Right, pretty much so. Just watching TV yesterday and all of a sudden this came down, and my biggest fear was the fire because it was flaming and there was a lot of...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: sparks from the wires.

CATOS: Yes, so we pretty well by that time, the fire department came by and secured everything. But for a while there it got pretty dicey.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you look around the neighborhood it's not too bad except for this one --

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: Much further north of WSCN's coverage but just and south of Jacksonville, Florida is the historic city of St. Augustine and that's where we find our David Mattingly, who is keeping post there. David, I imagine that folks might be breathing some sigh of relief even though you still got some kicked up winds and rain that this storm has been downgraded to a tropical storm.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, we are seeing some of the strongest wind gusts that we have seen so far this afternoon and some of the strongest rain that is coming in almost perfectly horizontal right now. And yet, when you look out along the seawall down here, it's not unusual to see people out here trying to experience the elements firsthand. There are officials here who are somewhat stunned that people would think that this is an opportunity to do some sight-seeing. They're asking everyone to stay indoors.

There were no mandatory evacuations here. In fact the barrier islands were not evacuated. People are staying out there in their homes. Occasionally the wind will get strong enough that sheriff's deputies here will temporarily close the bridge just so the weather will let up before people actually try to cross the bridge here. This is a very low-lying city. Some parts of this old city are below sea level, so those streets are not draining at all right now because of the surf being up, and with so much rain coming down, there's going to be prolonged flooding of city streets around here.

Earlier today, we saw one young man on a wake (ph) board actually taking advantage of the afternoon. Going -- being pulled by friends of his across a flooded street. Another young man tried to bicycle across it. We actually saw him fall down and hurt himself. So far there have been no injuries reported in this county and officials want to keep it that way. There are thousands of people without electricity right now and there probably be more as this storm continues to roll in with these strong winds that we're experiencing right now.

At one point the emergency management center, as well as two of the shelters that were set up for residents here were without electricity. They went to emergency generators. So this is about the middle of what they think this storm is going to be and we have hours to go before Frances finally passes through St. Augustine, a tropical storm, but nonetheless, something people here are saying that residents should be taking seriously instead of getting out and doing sightseeing. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: No kidding about, that David. Thanks so much. And even though it's been downgraded to a tropical storm, you see right there the wind and the rain that David Mattingly is standing in is still very aggressive. We're talking about 70-mile-per-hour winds, sustained winds that have been clocked. Try and take cover, thanks a lot David.

When we come back, we're going to go even further south along the Atlantic coast of Florida to Fort Pierce and there we will be finding our Jason Bellini and soon we'll be finding out from him what's happening there when we come right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: More now on our continuing coverage of Frances, no longer a hurricane, but now a tropical storm. Let's move much further south along the Atlantic coast of Florida and head just north of West Palm Beach, still considered part of south Florida to Fort Pierce and that's where we find our Jason Bellini. Jason, how do things look there?

JASON BELLINI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not good at all and let me just describe to you here. We're at Fort Pierce marina looking out onto the river here. You see a bunch of pillars, there's made of concrete but there's no docks attached to them. All the docks drifted away. What happened was sometime after 1:00 a.m. yesterday, these docks broke away or the pillars themselves concrete pillars broke off and you had the docks with the boats just go sailing away. We don't know what happened to all of these boats. Some of them crashed into other boats as they went plowing down the river, other ones sunk and there's right now 14 boats that are unaccounted for. No one knows what happened to them. So it's a very ugly scene here. We've been around as people come back to survey the damage to find out what happened to their boats and we just spoke to someone who's been here all day who said that there were people crying on the dock all day.

Over half of these boats we are told, over half of these yachts, we're told were inhabited by people who actually lived in them. This just weren't just recreational boats. This was the residence for many people here. We spoke to one man who said that he -- most of his neighbors are now gone. They've gone adrift. He doesn't know when they'll be back, if they'll ever have a boat out here again. He suspects they will, that people know the risks when they live on the sea like this and he hopes that eventually their community will be one again.

WHITFIELD: And Jason a moment ago, we were looking at the videotape of some of the damage on the marina of some of those boats and e know exactly what you're talking about. But at the time of the shooting of the tape there wasn't a whole lot of rain at that moment. If you look outside the window where you are right now, what is it doing outside?

BELLINI: Well, right now it's gusting wind and the rain is pretty periodic. It's coming and going and at times it's a blinding rain and it's hard to sort of see what's going on out there in the water and the boats that are destroyed are just being pounded some more and sinking deeper into the water. But for the moment, things are relatively calm, certainly calm compared to last night, but it's still difficult for people to get over here to survey the damage of their boats. Only people who stayed in this immediate area are able to get here, police are on the street and they're patrolling. They don't want people to be out going here or anywhere in town. Some people have managed to make it over.

WHITFIELD: All right. Jason Bellini in Fort Pierce, thanks so much.

Let's travel much further north along the Atlantic coast of Florida to Daytona where folks there were looking forward to the Labor Day weekend, one of the last big financial boon weekends. Well we see what happened with what was hurricane Frances and now tropical storm Frances. Let's pick up some of our live coverage now with affiliate WJXT in Daytona.

ADAM LANDOW (ph): more of the damage. You'll see power lines down, it's actually amazing to think that the wind has been this heavy for so long. While we were driving, we could tell you trying to get the video that you're seeing we actually got hit. Our car did by a piece of plywood. We didn't get hurt and then we decided to turn around after that happened. But we can tell you that That's the kind of thing that are happening. Police right now are driving through the streets trying to make sure that nobody is out and about because maybe people are assuming that because the storm has been going on for so long, that it's about to give in, but there's no sign that that's exactly what's happening. Again, you can see, we'll get these rain bursts, and you can see a police officer right there driving the street and then in a second if Carlos can move over there a little bit, you'll see another police officer. So can you see the only people on the roads right now are police and that's the way it should be, because the rain and the winds are whipping around. There's no reason for anyone to be out trying to go and see what kind of damage has been done, because there's only the possibility that you could get hurt. We're live in Daytona Beach tonight. I'm Adam Landow (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Adam, what is all that junk in the road? Is that part of that gas station that fell into the road there?

LANDOW: What you see behind me, Sam, no, that's actually the roof of a motel that blew off. We talked to the woman that was inside. They're still there. There holding down fort, the owners of that motel, and they said that they were sitting in their house and all of a sudden they heard a big bang. She got up, she was actually sleeping. She ran out to see what it was and then she saw the roof had blown off. Now we can tell you one of the worst parts of that, we were talking to the woman and she said that they actually breathed a sigh of relief because they didn't see barely any damage from Charley, none at all. So just when they thought they were out of woods, bang, Frances comes, and you can see what it did. Sam, Mary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Has the wind direction changed there at all? I mean as this thing came onshore, it kind of moves toward the northeast. You would expect it to come from the south and then from the east and eventually kind of northeast. Has it changed? Have you noticed that at all?

LANDOW: It has a little bit, but because of where we are on the beach, we're actually getting more of a swirling effect because you've got a lot of tall buildings and then some short buildings and then some gaps where people would actually go to access the beach. So we see more of a swirling motion, but what we have seen is that generally the winds really haven't changed that much. That's because they're really whipping around, whipping around. In fact when you're driving down the road, when we were getting those pictures that you saw, we tried to stay to the left because all the debris seemed to coming from the right. So that can kind of tell you just how positioning will change what you want to do. Sam? Mary?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Be careful out there Adam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Adam Landow, live in Daytona Beach where of course they have taken a little bit more of a serious --

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks to our cooperation with affiliates throughout Florida, we are able to bring you a lot of these very compelling images out of various cities in south Florida, that coming from our affiliate WJXT.

Well, let's go to Miami now, home of the National Hurricane Center and Ed Rappaport, who is the deputy director is joining us now. And Ed, we talk about this storm Frances being downgraded to a tropical storm, 70-mile-per-hour sustained winds last time we checked. You can correct me if I'm wrong on that. We're only talking a four- mile-per-hour difference between tropical storm and hurricane strength, category one. So explain to us why this is nothing to sneeze at still?

ED RAPPAPORT, NATL HURRICANE CENTER: That's right. And you were correct on the assessment there. 70 miles per hour still is capable of downing trees and causing some roof damage. We're very concerned because a lot of the areas that it for hour after hour by these strong winds and it's loosened up some of those branches and there still could be some flying debris.

WHITFIELD: So what next now? As we look at the satellite picture behind you and it looks like what was the eye of the storm kind of just west of Tampa, you still have some very significant bands of wind and rain on the backside which we saw a live shot out of St. Augustine still battering a good part of the northern coast of Florida, right?

RAPPAPORT: That's right. The center is actually now just a little bit to the east of the Tampa area. But the entire state now is covered by heavy bands of rain and some wind. There are really two stories. One is all the rain that's occurring now as the center is still over land. The other is that the tropical storm is going to move back out over the water and there is a possibility of it regaining hurricane strength before it arrives at the panhandle.

WHITFIELD: How big of a possibility?

RAPPAPORT: We're forecasting now to come back to category one hurricane and so we have hurricane warnings up now for a large portion of the Florida panhandle for the arrival of hurricane force winds tomorrow.

WHITFIELD: And what does this mean? There is a tornado warning for Wayne County, Georgia. How extensive might that warning go as we see the storm make its way across the Gulf?

RAPPAPORT: Tornado warnings are relatively specific to counties. In this case though, we can see isolated tornadoes associated with Frances up and down the Florida peninsula and spreading into the southeastern states, still going to be a long event, another day or two before we can move this out of Florida and then into the southeastern states.

WHITFIELD: Wow, another day or two. That's a lot of rain being dumped on the panhandle and other northern parts of Florida, right?

RAPPAPORT: That's right. Now the conditions will gradually improve from the south so south Florida will have a much better day tomorrow as will central Florida but the conditions will be deteriorating tonight and tomorrow in the northern part of Florida and the Florida panhandle.

WHITFIELD: Are we still looking at upwards of 20 inches of rain in some isolated areas?

RAPPAPORT: That's possible, although the hurricane has lost a little bit of its structure. We have seen reports of rain as high as 11 inches. Still think there could be seven to 12 inches further to the north and west.

WHITFIELD: All right. Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, thanks so much for joining us from Miami.

RAPPAPORT: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: We're going to take a short break and when we come back, we're going to go to the Bahamas where a string of 700 islands - they were the first to be hit before Florida felt the wrath of what is now tropical storm Frances. Our Karl Penhaul is in the Bahamas and we'll go to him soon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: One hurricane related death is reported in Florida in the Bahamas. Two hurricane related deaths are being reported in this 700 island chain which was first hit by what was hurricane Frances. Our Karl Penhaul joins us via video phone from Freeport, the Bahamas, there and Karl, what kind of damage assessment is already under way?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, still very early to talk about full damage assessment. The emergency services have been moving around all morning, and we've accompanied them in part of the morning and also part of the afternoon, but still a long way from putting together a full damage assessment together. What we have seen of course are roofs ripped off, shingles torn off other roofs. Many, many trees fallen and the power lines are still very much down, no electricity on Freeport as far as we can make out and according to the police right now, only partial telephone services and no cellular phone services right now.

But what they are emergency services have been concentrate doing today is getting towards the west of the island to try and do an assessment there in what is probably the most low lying part of Grand Bahama. We tried to accompany the police on that trip, but we got part of the way and about 1 1/2 or 2 feet of water is still lying across the main highway there. We had to turn back because along with the tropical storm-force winds that were still blowing and are still blowing here in Grand Bahama, torrential rains were also lashing down on the island, but certainly if the tide rise and fall some one would expect some of that tidal surge to disappear and probably by tomorrow, towards the rest of the island the emergency there will be over and the emergency service in other parts of the island can put together a systematic damage assessment.

But as you mentioned, yes two deaths in the Bahamas, one in Nassau, an 18-year-old as he was trying to fix a power generator here on Grand Bahamas, a 35-year-old man drowned. His body was recovered today. He was discovered yesterday lying in water. But an 80-year- old man is still missing, still no word on his fate. Fredricka? WHITFIELD: I wonder because getting around and communications are indeed a challenge right now. We're talking about 700 islands that make up the Bahamas there. Is there some real concern that perhaps the death toll might be higher than the two already reported?

PENHAUL: Police who are the lead agency and looking into deaths and disappearances here, they don't seem overly worried in that respect at the moment because they have had police, they did strategically place police units around the island so that they were able to respond more quickly, even though they knew certain parts of the island would be cut off. So they don't think that there are any more deaths out there, although obviously the fate of that 80-year-old man still a concern, but certainly getting around the island is going to remain a problem for some time to come. The only way really that the patrol cars have been moving

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