U.S. weather forecasters urged those in the northern Lesser Antilles and northeastern Caribbean Sea to ``closely monitor'' the progress of Hurricane Frances, which may continue to strengthen over the next several days. Frances was located about 550 miles (885 kilometers) east of the Leeward Islands, the northern group of the Lesser Antilles, at 11 a.m. New York time, moving toward the west-northwest at about 9 miles per hour, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said in a public advisory. The storm has maximum sustained winds of almost 135 mph with higher gusts and could strengthen later today, hurricane specialist Lixion Avila said in a statement. Hurricane-force winds of as much as 74 mph extend as much as 35 miles from its center, and a tropical storm watch may be issued for the Leeward Islands today. Frances is the third major storm and the fourth hurricane of the 2004 season. Hurricane Charley, the most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. since Andrew in 1992, struck Florida's west coast earlier this month, killing at least 20 people and leaving hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power for days, informs Bloomberg. According to Boston Herald, tropical Storm Gaston sloshed ashore in South Carolina Sunday, spinning sheets of rain and near hurricane-force wind as it uprooted trees, flooded roads and knocked out power to at least 125,000 homes. Gov. Mark Sanford declared a state of emergency as the storm moved inland and encouraged ``folks to stay in their homes for the time being so that damage assessment crews, utility truck crews and debris removal crews can do their jobs.'' The storm made landfall at Bulls Bay near McClellanville, just a few miles from where Hurricane Charley made a second landfall after devastating southwest Florida earlier this month. As much as eight inches of rain had fallen along some parts of the coast by midday, and a flash flood watch was in effect. Steady sheets of rain fell in Mount Pleasant hours after the eye of Gaston came ashore. Tree limbs littered flooded roadways, some of which were impassable. Palmettos planted earlier this year on a new boulevard were pushed to the pavement, and road signs twisted in the wind. Across the harbor in Charleston, Gaston flooded streets and pushed over power poles. At least 75,000 people were without power at the height of the storm. Reuters publishes that tropical Storm Gaston, bearing torrential rain and near-hurricane-strength winds, swept ashore in South Carolina on Sunday and quickly weakened. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gaston weakened as it made landfall late in the morning. By 11 a.m., it was about 40 miles northeast of the city of Charleston, at latitude 33.2 north and longitude 79.5 west, with 60 mph winds. Far out at sea, meanwhile, powerful Hurricane Frances was expected to gain strength on Sunday and become a top level Category 5 storm, capable of causing catastrophic damage. With winds of 135 mph, the storm swirled across the Atlantic on a path that would take it north of the vulnerable islands of the eastern Caribbean early next week. Gaston formed quickly on Saturday. It brought 6 to 10 inches of rain, and storm surge flooding of 3 to 5 feet above normal. A hurricane warning that had been in force for the South Carolina coast from the Savannah River to Little River Inlet was largely discontinued after the storm failed to reach hurricane strength before hitting dry land.
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