ATLANTA — Retailers in southeast Florida braced for Hurricane Frances on Thursday, with major shopping centers such as Aventura Mall and Bal Harbour Shoppes and Burdines-Macy’s and other stores closing on the eve of Labor Day weekend.

More than 2.5 million people were told to evacuate as Frances, packing winds as high as 145 miles per hour, churned in the Atlantic less than 400 miles from the coast. The hurricane may be the worst to hit the state in 10 years.

Like Hurricane Charley, which struck Florida’s west coast last month, Frances is a Category 4 storm on a scale of 1 to 5 and might become a Category 5 storm if its winds reach 156 miles per hour. Frances is twice the size of Charley and Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the area in 1992. Frances’ hurricane-force winds stretch as far as 80 miles from its center.

“We’re shuttering glass areas, removing sign holders, banners, benches and anything that could become a flying projectile,” said a spokeswoman for The Falls, an open-air shopping center in Miami’s Kendell area that closed at 2 p.m. “I’m a child of Hurricane Andrew, and we’re putting everything in place, preparing for a worst-case scenario. At best, we could reopen Sunday at noon.”

Frances threatens retail-rich areas such as Miami, Miami Beach and Palm Beach, and has the potential to affect Georgia and South Carolina, the National Weather Service said. Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency throughout Florida, activating the National Guard and emergency operations centers.

Stores that stayed open were packed as customers stocked up on bottled water, batteries, food and other emergency supplies. Some Wal-Marts in the Miami area closed at 2 p.m., with others likely to follow, a spokeswoman said.

Bal Harbor Shoppes, an open-air luxury center across from the Atlantic Ocean north of Miami Beach, began shutting stores Wednesday, securing plants, trash cans and anything else not nailed down, a spokeswoman said. The center, with Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and high-end designer boutiques, completely closed at 2 p.m. Thursday.

A few miles north of Bal Harbor in Aventura, Fla., Aventura Mall, with Bloomingdale’s, Burdines-Macy’s, Sears, J.C. Penney and about 250 other stores, shut at 3 p.m.

This story first appeared in the September 3, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Burdines-Macy’s closed about 20 stores on the East Coast, from Daytona Beach down to Miami. A spokeswoman said central Florida stores were likely to shut on Friday. The company’s Miami headquarters also was shut.

On Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue, the famed street of some of the richest luxury retail in the country, stores closed on Thursday afternoon. Farther north, Jacksonville Landing in Jacksonville, planned to shut down Friday afternoon, and weekend events were canceled.

— With contributions from Caperton Gillett

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