Hurricane Frances weakened slightly as it roared through the Bahamas on Friday and took aim at the crowded southeast Florida coast, where hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes as much of the state shut down. Frances brought down power and phone lines, flooded coastal roads and blew the roof off an airline building as it churned near Nassau, the Bahamas' capital. It was edging closer to Florida with winds of 115 mph, down from 140 mph winds on Thursday, but still a very large and potentially destructive storm. By Friday afternoon, the hurricane's outer bands had begun to spin off and lash parts of Palm Beach County in southeast Florida, said Max Mayfield, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center. The winds had already downed trees and power lines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, which along with Palm Beach are the state's most populous area with more than 5 million people. Gasoline stations throughout south Florida ran short of fuel and storm shelters filled up as authorities ordered 2.5 million people, the most ever told to leave in Florida, to evacuate mobile homes, low-lying coastal areas and barrier islands, informs Reuters. According to 14WFIE, hurricane Frances is beginning to make its presence felt along Florida's shoreline as officials adjust their forecasts for when it'll hit. Winds and waves are currently picking up along the Florida shoreline. At 2 p-m Eastern time, the hurricane was about 200 miles east-southeast of West Palm Beach. Its top winds were 115 mph. It's moving northwest about nine miles an hour. Forecasters say its forward speed could slow down even more before it makes landfall. Hurricane-force winds are reaching up to 85 miles from its center. Weather officials now expect the storm's core to hit somewhere on Florida's Atlantic coast Saturday afternoon or evening. That's later than originally predicted. Hurricane Frances, a powerful and dangerous hurricane, continues to crawl toward Florida's shore this evening, bringing with it the potential for torrential rains and flooding once it hits land and starts a slow journey across the state. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said late today that Floridians have no cause to breathe easier. Frances may be weakening, wobbling and disheveled, but it's still a huge Category 3 storm capable of doing enormous damage to Florida, especially since its wind bands are expanding. "It's not good news. Don't let your guard down,'' said Max Mayfield, the center's director. "The wind field is really spreading out, and I can assure you this will have a tremendous impact on Central Florida.'' At 5 p.m., the massive storm was about 200 miles east-southeast of Florida's east coast, with maximum sustained winds of near 115 mph. It was moving about 8 mph, and its core was expected to be near Florida's shores tomorrow afternoon, the hurricane center said. Hurricane Frances lost some steam and hesitated off the Florida coast Friday, prolonging the anxiety among the millions evacuated and raising fears of a slow, ruinous drenching over the Labor Day weekend. The storm is expected to come ashore with up to 20 inches of rain as early as Saturday afternoon, nearly a day later than earlier predictions. For the 2.5 million residents told to clear out - the biggest evacuation in Florida history - and the millions of others who remained at home, Frances' tardy arrival meant yet another day of waiting and worrying. "It's all the anticipation that really gets to you," said Frank McKnight of Wellington, who waited four hours at a hardware store to buy plywood. "I just wish it would get here and we could get it all over with. I want to know now - am I going to have a house left or not?" A hurricane warning remained in effect for Florida's eastern coast, from Flagler Beach south almost to the state's tip, and Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for all of Florida. At 5 p.m. EDT, Frances was centered about 170 miles east of Miami. Gusty wind began to buffet the coast, and Florida Power & Light reported 170,000 customers lost power. Service was quickly restored to 90,000. As Frances pounded the Bahamas, its top wind fell to 115 mph from 145 mph a day earlier. And its march toward Florida slowed to 8 mph. The storm's lumbering pace and monstrous size - twice as big as devastating Hurricane Andrew in 1992 - mean Frances could spend hours wringing itself out over Florida, causing disastrous flooding, reports Orlando Sentinel.
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