Nervous Floridians batten down

Respect turning to fear as powerful hurricane heads toward Gulf Coast

September 14, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PENSACOLA, Fla. - Jennifer McNeal was doing the same thing everyone else in western Florida was doing yesterday - battening down for the mightiest storm to set its sights on the Panhandle in a decade.

Her tools were different - three cranes and a crew of 200. And so was the property she was protecting - worth $102 million. But the frustration in her voice, the tired resignation in her eyes, were part of the damp mood that rolled through Florida's western coast yesterday ahead of Hurricane Ivan.

"We're trying to get as much weight on it as we can before we have to evacuate everyone," said McNeal, assistant project manager for the 22-story Calypso Resort & Towers complex, which the cranes and workers were erecting busily behind her. "We build to withstand hurricane forces, of course, but you don't like having to deal with them before you're finished."

Ivan's projected landfall shifted up and down the coast yesterday like a flashlight sweeping across the sand, touching off worry with every new warning.

What felt more like respect for the powerful hurricane on Sunday had evolved into something closer to fear, perhaps even a sense of doom. Residents who days before were joking about their possible fate crept closer to panic, as supplies of plywood wore thin, activity at grocery and hardware stores moved toward mayhem and the occasional gas station ran dry.

Every cross street on Route 98, which wriggles along 100 miles or so of Florida shoreline from Panama City to Pensacola, was alive with preparation, evacuation and tales of dread.

In the tiny community of Mary Esther, Jack Delaney struggled with the imponderable task of trying to protect hundreds of fragile Japanese bonsai trees from the hurricane. He sells them at an outdoor nursery next to his washing-machine repair business, and like most of his neighbors he had few options, none of them particularly good.

Delaney opted to store half his plants underneath their growing tables, to protect them from falling or flying debris. The other half he kept above ground to protect from a surge of deadly salt water. Either way, half his plants would probably die.

"There's really no protection out here, so there's nothing else I can do," Delaney said. "Hey, I have to get myself out of the storm first."

Farther down the road, Jon Phillips was in a similar fix, trying to decide which of his two houses is best suited for riding out the storm. His home was built with thick lumber and hurricane straps but is only about 9 feet above sea level. His rental house nearby is 25 feet above sea level, but he says it was "built by Bubbas, and you have to worry the roof might blow off."

"None of these are good options, but there just aren't any good options with something like this," Phillips said. "I'm going to lose everything if it's as strong as they say it is."

His one contentment: "I just went down and bought my hurricane tequila."

For sheer scale, few worries could match those of McNeal and fellow employees of Yates Construction, preparing to abandon their half-built, $102 million development on the waterfront in Panama City.

Cranes were shifting concrete walls from one tower to another yesterday in hopes of giving each unfinished structure its best chance of survival. McNeal said workers had to board up windows they'd just installed. And she couldn't even contemplate the possible fate of the three cranes.

Equally pressing and complicated was the evacuation of the project's management offices, located in trailers across the street that construction officials can't even try to protect from the storm.

McNeal was waiting yesterday afternoon for a rental truck to haul away all of the project's billing records, permits, correspondence and other paperwork, along with the staff's computers. The company was videotaping the construction and evacuation procedure, lest its insurance company accuse it of ignoring the storm's potential.

"I guess it's just like a home, on a much larger scale," said McNeal. "I'm sure everyone up and down this beach is worrying about the same thing I am."

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