- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

GULF SHORES, Ala. — Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Gulf Coast early today with 130 mph wind, launching tornadoes, washing out a major bridge and hurling metal signs through the night. At least 11 U.S. deaths were blamed on the storm, but officials said the toll and the damage could have been even worse.

Up to 15 inches of rain was expected as the storm moved inland. It remained a Category 1 hurricane with wind of 75 mph eight hours after its 2 a.m. CDT landfall before weakening to a tropical storm. At 1 p.m., its sustained wind speed was 70 mph.

Ivan had already killed 68 as it passed through the Caribbean.

For Florida, it was the third storm in five weeks. Hurricane Charley struck the state Aug. 13 and Frances on Sept. 5; the two caused dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

Ivan knocked out power to more than 1 1/2 million customers in four states, toppled trees and ripped off roofs. In the beach resort town of Gulf Shores, where the storm’s eye came ashore, the sky glowed bright green as electrical transformers blew.

Still, many of the millions of Gulf Coast residents who spent a frightening night in shelters and boarded-up homes emerged Thursday morning to find that Ivan was not the catastrophe they had feared.

“Ivan was nowhere near as bad as Frederic - not even close,” Mobile Police Chief Sam Cochran said, referring to the 1979 storm that devastated the Alabama coast. “I think we were really spared and blessed.”

New Orleans, especially vulnerable to storms because much of it lies below sea level, had wind and just a touch of rain.

“Leaves in the pool - that’s it,” said Shane Eschete, assistant general manager of the Inn on Bourbon Street. “It won’t take us long to clean that up.”

Downtown Mobile was deserted early Thursday. Historic, oak-tree-lined Government Street was blocked with downed tree limbs, metal signs, roofing material and other storm debris.

“We were wondering at first if we made the right choice or not,” said Marc Oliver, 38, who rode out the storm with his family in Mobile, moving from room to room as the wind shifted. “We had some trees down in our yard and roofing damage. Other than that, we came out pretty good.”

President Bush signed disaster declarations Thursday for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and was awaiting paperwork from Florida, press secretary Scott McClellan said.

In Florida, two people were killed and more than 200 homes were damaged when at least five tornadoes roared through Bay County. Another tornado killed four people when it struck homes in Blountstown, Fla., and an 8-year-old girl died after being crushed by a tree that fell onto her mobile home in Milton, Fla. Her parents were unharmed.

“You want to see the natural hand of God firsthand, but you don’t realize how strong it is,” said Kevin Harless, 32, who was sightseeing in Panama City Beach, Fla., around the time of the tornadoes.

Four ailing evacuees, including a terminally ill cancer patient, died after being taken from their storm-threatened southern Louisiana homes to safer parts of the state.

Part of a bridge on Interstate 10, the major east-west highway through Florida’s Panhandle, was washed away.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, warned that the misery would spread as Ivan moved across the Southeast. “I hate to think about what’s going to happen inland,” he said.

At 2 p.m. EDT, Ivan was centered about 45 miles west-southwest of Montgomery, Ala., and was moving to the north-north at 14 mph. Forecasters projected a northeastern march across the South, the storm weakening to a tropical depression overnight.

A tropical storm warning remained in effect from the mouth of the Pearl River in eastern Louisiana to Apalachicola, Fla.

National Hurricane Center forecasters said land east of where Ivan’s eye passed would experience storm surge of 10 to 16 feet, topped by large and dangerous battering waves.

“We’ve had calls from folks saying, ‘The water is rising. Can you come get me?’ Unfortunately we can’t send anybody out. The storm is at its worst point now,” Sonya Smith, a spokeswoman for Florida’s Escambia County emergency management agency, said early Thursday.

The storm’s northward track spared New Orleans a direct hit. Parts of the city saw only sporadic, light rain overnight, though wind gusts reached tropical storm strength.

Tolls were being lifted and signal lights adjusted to prepare for heavy traffic as people return home - a reversal of the jammed roads before the storm. Of roughly 2 million told to evacuate ahead of the storm, 1.2 million were from greater New Orleans. Five people were arrested there for alleged looting.

More than 1.5 million homes and businesses lost power: at least 975,000 in Alabama, 50,000 in Louisiana, 145,000 in Mississippi and 345,000 in the Florida Panhandle. Florida workers were also still trying to restore power to about 160,000 hit by Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

Ivan’s waves - some up to 25 feet - destroyed homes along the Florida coast Wednesday. A buoy about 300 miles south of Panama City registered one wave of 50 feet high.

Mayors of the Alabama communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach refused to let anyone come back for now, fearful that returning residents weren’t safe among downed power lines and weakened buildings.

Gulf Shores Mayor David Bodenhamer said streets were flooded, and trees and power lines were down everywhere. His home and others along the beachfront road were OK, he said, “but the beach is going to be a mess, a big mess.”

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch for as far away as North Carolina, which suffered heavy flooding last week from the remnants of Hurricane Frances.

More trouble lingered out in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Jeanne became a hurricane Thursday in the Caribbean as it moved across the north coast of Puerto Rico with 80 mph wind. It could approach Florida’s east coast or the Carolinas early next week.

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