Rain, wind slap coast of Florida

Gordon loses punch, brings 60-70 mph gusts, 6-foot waves

Little structural damage

280,000 evacuate coastal area

severe flooding is possible

September 18, 2000|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CEDAR KEY, Fla. - Its tail whipping through South Florida, Tropical Storm Gordon wallowed into the Gulf Coast near Cedar Key last night, flooding coastal towns and slicing across the state's northeast corner.

Gordon lost some potency - downgraded to a tropical storm just before landfall - but it arrived wide and ambitious, and its tornadoes and torrential rain menaced Floridians from the Keys through Miami-Dade and Broward counties to Gainesville and beyond.

The storm had seemed imposing enough as it swirled in the Gulf of Mexico to cause about 280,000 people to evacuate a strip of Florida coastline from Tampa Bay to the state's northwestern coast.

Statewide, power outages left 121,000 people in the dark and heat.

A tall, narrow, black tornado hammered a mobile home complex in Pembroke Park, damaging a dozen trailers. Other tornadoes were reported near Wellington in Palm Beach County, near Lake Okeechobee and elsewhere.

Strong squalls shook the region. A 62 mph gust was measured near Coconut Creek. At nightfall, a new arc of rough weather swung through South Florida, drenching about 65,000 fans at Pro Player Stadium for the Miami Dolphins-Baltimore Ravens game and a tribute to Dan Marino.

Tornado, flood and other severe weather alerts covered the entire peninsula. Gov. Jeb Bush mobilized 200 members of the Florida National Guard. More than 8 inches of rain was reported in Sebring and elsewhere in Central Florida, with more coming.

Forty-five thousand students huddled at or near the University of Florida as Gordon prowled through Gainesville. Driving rain swept the hillside campus, and a few students were caught carrying last-minute provisions to their dorm rooms.

Jocelyn Ward, 18, of Fort Lauderdale, clutched a bag of Subway sandwiches in one hand and a blue "Gator" umbrella in the other.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed her family's home in Cutler Ridge.

"This brings back old memories," she said.

No deaths or injuries were reported in the state, but experts said Gordon reminded every Floridian to respect the scope and reach of a hurricane or tropical storm.

"People focus on the center but these storms are huge," said Joel Rothfuss of the National Weather Service's South Florida office. "You can be a long way away and still get rained on all day or be blasted by sand on the beach."

Said Dave Donnelly of Gainesville, assistant emergency director in Alachua County: "If you live in Florida, you've got to be prepared for any kind of tropical system."

Gordon's core and winds of 70 mph struck near Cedar Key shortly before 9 p.m., according to the National Hurricane Center in west Miami-Dade. Twelve-foot waves rolled over Dock Street, and strong winds littered the town with palm fronds and other vegetation.

Vacationers Chris and Deborah Livingston rode out the storm at the L&M Bar in Cedar Key, a picturesque spit of land. They live in South Carolina, where they managed to outsmart Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

"This shouldn't be too much," Chris Livingston said. "I'd rather face the storm than the traffic."

Gordon's wind reached the state yesterday morning and raced along the Gulf Coast from Sarasota north to Tampa and beyond, rounding the Big Bend to Apalachicola. Then, wind and rain moved inland, drenching a broad expanse of Florida.

In Orlando, malls were packed with tourists detoured from theme parks by intermittent downpours. A sign outside the Roadway Inn on International Drive: "Hurricane Special. Rooms $19.99."

Towns along the upper Gulf Coast expected more than 10 inches of rain - and 5 to 8 feet of storm surge, the dome of water that heralds a storm's landfall.

The greatest threat was south of the Gordon's center, and St. Petersburg residents reported 3 feet of surge well ahead of the storm.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered in Cedar Key, Yankeetown, Inglis, Alligator Point and other towns. Some counties issued voluntary evacuation calls. Forty-seven shelters were opened.

Much of the Big Bend is sparsely populated - an area of fishing hamlets, small resorts and scattered cabins. But larger towns such as Cross City and Inverness stand less than 20 miles inland, and disruptions at school and work were anticipated today.

Earlier in the day, many of Cedar Key's 1,000 residents boarded windows and sandbagged doorways. Some hustled inland, but most remained behind although the place is notoriously vulnerable to floods.

Russ and Penny Weber of Gainesville rushed to Cedar Key to prepare their newly purchased vacation home. "We're hoping it will do OK," Penny Weber said. "The odds are with us. It's been there since 1965."

By early afternoon, the village was largely deserted, except for a half-dozen television satellite trucks strategically positioned at the Gulf for the storm's center.

But Gordon was much more than its core, and rarely had so much of Florida's peninsula been under threat. That made it difficult to predict where the most trouble would occur.

"What it starts to look like is a big gale storm," said Craig Fugate, chief of the state Emergency Response Team.

Emergency managers advised motorists to stay home, but that is a tough message to sell on a Sunday in September. Tens of thousands of football fans drove to football games in Jacksonville and Miami-Dade.

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