- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

GULF SHORES, Ala. — Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Gulf Coast early yesterday with 130-mph winds, launching tornadoes, washing out a major bridge and hurling metal signs through the night.

At least 20 deaths in the United States were blamed on the storm, most of them in Florida.

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 it made landfall at 3 a.m. yesterday, before weakening to a tropical storm. At 1 p.m., its sustained wind speed was 70 mph.

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

For Florida, it was the third storm in five weeks. Insurance experts put Ivan’s damage at anywhere from $3 billion to $10 billion. Hurricanes Charley and Frances had combined estimated insured damages between about $11 billion and $13 billion after striking Florida in the past month.

President Bush plans to visit Alabama and Florida on Sunday to survey the damage, the White House said.

Ivan knocked out power to more than 1.5 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 yesterday morning to find that Ivan was not the catastrophe that 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, which is 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.”

In Alabama, downtown Mobile was deserted early yesterday. 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.”

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

In Florida, two persons were killed and more than 200 homes were damaged when at least five tornadoes roared through Bay County. Another tornado killed four persons 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. There were at least six other deaths in the state.

In addition to 13 deaths in Florida, two were killed in Mississippi and one in Georgia. In Louisiana, four evacuees died after being taken from their storm-threatened 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.

Yesterday, Ivan moved north through Alabama at about 15 mph. Forecasters projected a northeastern march across the South, with the storm weakening to a tropical depression overnight.

Yesterday, 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 the about 2 million told to evacuate ahead of the storm, 1.2 million were from greater New Orleans. Five persons were arrested there and charged with 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 also were 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 on Wednesday.

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.

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 yesterday in the Caribbean as it moved across the north coast of the Dominican Republic. It had wind speed of 75 mph and was expected to strengthen and could approach Florida’s east coast, Georgia or the Carolinas early next week.

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