STUART, Fla. -- Hurricane Frances lost some steam and hesitated off the Florida coast yesterday, prolonging the anxiety among the millions who were forced to flee, 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 this 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, the hurricane's late arrival meant another day of waiting and worrying.
"It's all the anticipation that really gets to you," said Frank McKnight of Wellington, who waited for 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?"
The storm's lumbering pace and monstrous size -- twice as big as the catastrophic Hurricane Andrew in 1992 -- mean Frances could spend hours wringing itself out over Florida, causing disastrous flooding.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for Florida's eastern coast, and Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for all of Florida.
"The storm, unlike Charley and others in the past, will be with us for a long, long time," Bush said.
Last night, Frances was centered about 170 miles east of Miami. Gusty wind began to buffet the coast, and utilities reported that as many as 170,000 customers lost power at one point.
The hurricane battered the main tourist hub in the Bahamas yesterday, unleashing deadly winds that shattered windows in skyscrapers, toppled trees, and set off scattered looting. One man was electrocuted in the storm.
Streets were almost deserted in Nassau, the Bahamian capital on New Providence Island, which is home to more than two-thirds of the island nation's 300,000 people. Many boarded up their homes and hunkered down to ride out the expansive storm.
Fallen trees, debris, and downed satellite dishes littered roads, and power was knocked out in many parts of Nassau. At least three boats were destroyed, and there were scattered reports of looting, police said.
The hurricane's maximum sustained winds had dropped from 145 miles per hour to 115 miles per hour yesterday, prompting forecasters to downgrade it to a Category 3 hurricane. And its march toward Florida slowed to 8 mph.
Florida state meteorologist Ben Nelson said Frances might remain over Florida for two cycles of high tide, meaning two rounds of storm surges expected to be 5 feet to 10 feet high.
"The water has nowhere to go and gets trapped because our elevation is so low," he said. "It could be a large mess."
Wind gusts in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach had already reached 38 miles per hour yesterday afternoon. Palm fronds bent in the wind as waves slammed into the beaches. A gust peeled half the roof off a mobile home in Davie, but no one was hurt.
In Miami, which was expected to escape the worst of Frances, winds at the leading edge toppled trees and caused scattered power outages.
At a Fort Lauderdale marina, Michael Wasserberg checked on his 65-foot boat and worried that many will misjudge the hurricane's ferocity.
"People are hearing that the winds are down to only 115 miles per hour," he said. "Well, if a bug hits you at 115 miles per hour, it will knock your head off."
Frances is expected to come ashore along the middle of Florida's eastern coast, crawl across the state as a tropical storm just north of Tampa, and weaken to a tropical depression as it moves over the Panhandle on Monday.
The threat comes three weeks after Hurricane Charley killed 27 people and caused billions of dollars in damage in southwestern Florida.
At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, President Bush spoke of another potential round of devastation for Florida.
"I've ordered teams to be in position to help the good people of that state," he said. "But the best thing we can do here is to offer our prayers."
For the most part, evacuees seemed to be adapting calmly to spending Labor Day weekend in shelters.
Nancy Syphax said the mood was good at an elementary school in Jensen Beach where people were seeking shelter. "This is a necessary precaution," she said. "I'd rather be safe than comfortable at this moment."
Many schools and government offices closed, as did amusement parks, the Kennedy Space Center, and airports serving Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Melbourne.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency mobilized 4,500 workers, three times the number sent to help victims of Charley. Officials said they had enough people and supplies in the state to handle two disaster-relief operations at once.
The American Red Cross planned a larger relief operation than the one it conducted after Hurricane Andrew. Back then, the agency spent $81 million.
In Nassau yesterday morning, Kenrad Delaney, 18, was electrocuted while filling a generator with diesel fuel, police said.
The US Embassy in Nassau removed about 200 nonemergency employees and their families as Frances neared.
Gusts of 84 miles per hour whipped through the city streets, and downpours already were pelting the city of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, where emergency administrator Alexander E. Williams said about 600 people had checked in to shelters.
Hurricane season usually peaks in early September, and the ninth named storm of the season formed yesterday in the far eastern Atlantic. Tropical Storm Ivan was about 865 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands with winds of 50 miles per hour.