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Fla. coast in sights of Jeanne

The familiar drill began again Thursday as storm-weary Floridians and disaster officials began preparing for Hurricane Jeanne, which could make landfall along the east coast as early as Sunday.

Forecasters warned that Jeanne could strike anywhere from Florida to the Carolinas, but said Florida appeared to be the more likely target for the Category 2 hurricane and its 105-mph winds.

As of late Thursday, forecasters said they expect Jeanne to make landfall Sunday evening on the South or Central Florida coast as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane before turning north toward Georgia or South Carolina.

If Jeanne stayed on that path, the Tampa Bay area could receive tropical storm-force gusts and rain Sunday or Monday, said Paul Close of the National Weather Service.

"We could get some gusty winds," he said, "but we're not looking for anything really traumatic."

Jeanne threatens even as Florida is still recovering from being hit by Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan in the last six weeks. The hurricanes are responsible for at least 82 deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

The only other time four hurricanes hit the same state in one season was in Texas in 1886, said National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield.

That historical footnote provides little comfort to Floridians tired of boarding up, moving out and living without electricity.

"We've just reached some level of normalcy and here it comes again. I've never seen anything like this," said an exasperated Margaret McFarlane, who lives near West Palm Beach and was without power for 12 days after Hurricane Frances.

Jeanne wobbled across the Atlantic on Thursday and appeared headed for the Bahamas by Saturday. At 11 p.m., Jeanne was centered about 390 miles east of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. It was barely moving, but forecasters expected it to pick up speed overnight and early today. Its hurricane-force winds extend out 45 miles from the eye.

Jeanne already is blamed for more than 1,100 deaths in Haiti.

In Florida, a state that long ago maxed out on hurricane weariness, preparations began anew.

"Everyone's boarding up again," said Debbie Dooley of the Natural Art Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach. "It's aggravating as all get out, and it's just too much work."

Those who already have been hit hoped Jeanne would spare them. Others prayed that their luck would not run out this time.

"The whole state feels battered," said Shari Holbert Lipner, spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County emergency managers. "We keep bracing ourselves, then breathing a sigh of relief. We haven't been hit . . . yet."

Miami-Dade County officials were discussing evacuation orders, but likely would wait until today before issuing any, Lipner said.

Officials are especially concerned about Jewish residents observing Yom Kippur, the high holy day that begins at sundown today. Because many do not use electric devices during religious holidays, they might not have access to evacuation orders, Lipner said. Officials urged them to make arrangements to hear news about the storm.

At Cape Canaveral, where Kennedy Space Center director James Kennedy ordered the base be closed to all non-essential personnel today, NASA is still trying to repair damage caused by Hurricane Frances. Gaping holes remain in the Vehicle Assembly Building, where space shuttles are attached to their booster rockets and external fuel tanks before launch.

Jeanne's path will be determined in large measure by a high pressure system that surrounds it everywhere but to the south, meteorologists said. The ridge essentially has been acting as a barrier, preventing Jeanne from moving too far north or west.

But the system is soon expected to weaken to the west, allowing Jeanne to turn toward the coast.

The position of the high pressure system, a semi-permanent feature in the atmosphere, has played a dominant role this hurricane season. Hurricane center meteorologist Dan Brown said it has perhaps been more persistent and stronger than normal, preventing the storms from striking north away from Florida.

Jeanne's expected path is similar to that of Frances, but with a projected northern turn.

The hurricane center has been closely monitoring Jeanne since it became a tropical depression on Sept. 13. Jeanne strengthened into a hurricane three days later, returned to tropical storm status and then was upgraded again to a hurricane Monday.

The effects of the previous hurricanes are still being felt across Florida. In the Panhandle, where a deadly Ivan came ashore Sept. 16, more than 100,000 utility customers are still without power and 1,000 people are in shelters. Residents of Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key still cannot return to their homes.

The hurricanes also have saturated many of the state's canals, rivers and lakes, causing continued concerns about flooding.

"The canals _ you could almost do some rafting on them they're moving so fast," said Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District. He said South Florida has become so saturated that managers are forced to look at flooding concerns over environmental ones. "The situation we're in now, we're dealing with human safety," Smith said.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Karl stayed on an open-ocean course that threatened only ships, while Tropical Storm Lisa moved slowly far out in the Atlantic.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30.

Jamie Thompson can be reached at jthompsonsptimes.com or (727) 893-8455. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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