- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

ST. MARKS, Fla. (AP) — Residents of the Florida Panhandle got serious about boarding up windows, stocking food and worrying yesterday as the deadly Hurricane Ivan appeared to be heading in their direction — although one forecaster said there was a chance that it could weaken before plowing ashore.

At the other end of the state, people who had fled the Florida Keys were told that the 120-mile island chain had dodged the storm’s bullet and that the 79,000 residents could return.

A hurricane watch was issued late yesterday for 420 miles of the northern Gulf of Mexico from Morgan City, La., to St. Marks in the Florida Panhandle. The watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.

Emergency officials in several Panhandle counties began issuing evacuation orders yesterday for all those living in mobile homes, barrier islands and storm-surge areas. In Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, that order affects 130,000 homes.

Ivan threatened to become the third hurricane to hit Florida this summer.

“It’s stupid to stay, unless you like camping in a disaster area. There’s no reason to be out here,” retired dental laboratory owner Mark Sigler said yesterday at his house across the street from the Gulf of Mexico on Pensacola Beach.

The storm hit the western tip of Cuba yesterday evening.

Forecasters said Ivan, which again strengthened to a Category 5 storm on Sunday night with winds up to 160 mph, could strike somewhere along a huge swath of the Gulf Coast by tomorrow.

They advised residents of the Gulf Coast from west-central Florida to the Louisiana marshes to be leery of the storm, which already had killed at least 68 persons and injured hundreds in the Caribbean.

“I’m not going to stay and wait and see if it’s scary,” Molly Dupont, 23, said in Orange Beach, Ala., as she got ready to head for her sister’s home in Ohio.

Traffic along the Alabama shore was congested in both directions yesterday. Although many were fleeing the beach, workers making storm preparations and people checking on second homes and boats were heading to the Gulf shores.

Farther west along the Gulf Coast at Pascagoula, Miss., people were buying hurricane supplies, including bottled water, batteries and canned goods, said Randy Howze, manager of a Winn-Dixie supermarket.

Before striking the coast, Ivan could be weakened by the cooler water of the northern Gulf of Mexico and wind shear, said National Hurricane Center meteorologist Michael Formosa.

However, that does not mean people should relax, his boss said.

“It’s still going to be a very formidable hurricane when it gets into the northeastern Gulf of Mexico,” hurricane center director Max Mayfield said yesterday. “It’s going to hit somebody there. This is a very, very dangerous hurricane.”

While Gulf Coast residents were on alert, people in the Keys and populous South Florida were able to relax because Ivan’s westward-shifting track meant they were no longer the hurricane’s prime target.

At 11 p.m. last night, Ivan was centered about 40 miles west-northwest of the western tip of Cuba and was headed northwest at nearly 9 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended 100 miles from the eye.

Ivan yesterday had top sustained winds near 160 mph. The minimum sustained wind speed for Category 5 status is 156 mph.

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