PENSACOLA, Fla. - Anxious residents across the Gulf Coast packed their bags and scrambled to protect their homes from powerful Hurricane Ivan yesterday as its path edged westward, potentially sparing much of storm-stalked Florida while threatening cities from Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans.
The storm weakened slightly as it moved across the Gulf of Mexico, with its winds slowing to about 140 mph from an earlier high of 160 mph. Forecasters said Ivan, reduced to a Category 4 hurricane, could hit near the Alabama-Mississippi state line late tonight or early tomorrow.
Its exact path remained uncertain.
Late yesterday, a hurricane warning was issued for the 300 miles from Apalachicola in the Florida Panhandle to Grand Isle, La., southwest of New Orleans, and residents were told not to count on Ivan missing them.
"There has been no change from the basic expectation that Ivan will be a major hurricane at landfall," forecasters with the National Hurricane Center in Miami warned.
In the Florida Panhandle, where the "Welcome to Pensacola Beach" electronic billboard flashed an urgent, "Evacuate Now," officials and wary residents said they did not expect to escape unharmed.
"Unless this thing goes to Texas, we're not going to get out of this one," said William "Craig" Fugate, director of the Division of Emergency Management in Florida, where much of the state still is recovering from the back-to-back hits of Hurricanes Charley and Frances.
At the Islander Package & Lounge near Pensacola Beach, locals such as Kermit Devlin braced for the storm at the bar. Devlin, 35, a laid-off airline pilot, said by cell phone that he planned to travel to Atlanta last night to escape Ivan's worst.
But earlier, with the sun still shining, he enjoyed a few cocktails while decked out in shorts and an inflatable life vest.
"The weather is great here right now - it's perfect, if you didn't know a hurricane was coming," said Devlin, whose house was at risk for severe flooding if Ivan delivers strong storm surges. "By the time I get back, it's probably not going to be so good."
Although Ivan was downgraded slightly, forecasters said it still carried hurricane-force winds that reached as far as 100 miles from its center - suggesting a wide impact regardless of where it touches land along the curving arc of the Gulf Coast.
Ivan blew across Cuba's western edge late Monday with fierce winds that ripped roofs off tobacco barns in the center of the country's famed tobacco region.
There were no immediate reports of deaths. The storm was blamed for at least 68 deaths in recent days as it cut across Grenada, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands as a Category 5 hurricane.
Residents of coastal towns in Mississippi and Alabama were ordered to evacuate, and Mississippi regulators ordered a dozen coastline casinos closed. In Pascagoula, at the state's southern tip, anyone who refused to leave was required to sign a form from the local coroner listing next of kin and identifying body marks.
In New Orleans and suburban Jefferson Parish, La., authorities urged more than 1.2 million people to leave. Evacuation was not mandatory, however, because many low-income residents in New Orleans do not have cars and as many as 10,000 tourists, in town for conventions and other events, could not escape - the city's Louis Armstrong Airport was ordered closed last night.
"We don't know if we're going to get a punch in the mouth or a kick in the knee. But we're going to get hit," Jefferson Parish President Aaron Boussard said at a news conference.
New Orleans, edged by the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, was particularly vulnerable. Much of the city sits below sea level, and it relies on a system of canals and pumps to stay dry. The last major hurricane to directly hit the city - Hurricane Betsy in 1965 - flooded some neighborhoods up to 7 feet.
In the city's French Quarter yesterday, business owners boarded up the antiques shops, bars and restaurants as street musicians kept playing. Tourist Dee Barkhart, a court reporter from Baltimore, was drinking Hurricane Punches, the signature drink at Pat O'Brien's bar.
"I looked into earlier flights, but they were hundreds of dollars more, and I wasn't sure I could switch flights," she said. "I figure I'm happier sitting here drinking Hurricanes than sitting at the airport worrying about them."
The two recent hurricanes left many Florida residents especially cautious as Ivan drew near. Catherine Hardy, owner of Harbor Breeze, an elderly-care facility in the panhandle town of Carrabelle, said yesterday that she already had copied medical records and packed medicine and clothing for the facility's residents if they had to be evacuated.
Others were more sanguine. Leonard C. Evans, chief of the nearby Saint James-Lanark Volunteer Fire Department, said he was waiting to see what steps would be needed to protect his communities from Ivan.
As for last night, the fire department was focusing on its regular bingo game.
"You know if you've got a bunch of people who are supposed to play bingo, you don't mess with them," Evans said.
Sun staff photographer Kim Hairston and the Associated Press contributed to this article.