Storm slams coastal states

Up to 2 million people are evacuated

tornadoes kill 2 in Florida Panhandle

La., Ala., Miss. also in hurricane's reach

Hours before landfall, destruction begins with high winds and flooding

Hurricane Ivan

September 16, 2004|By Gail Gibson, Robert Little and Ivan Penn | Gail Gibson, Robert Little and Ivan Penn,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MOBILE, Ala. - Fierce winds and torrential rains hammered the Gulf Coast overnight as Hurricane Ivan barreled ashore with a frightening reach that extended to four southern states and threatened widespread destruction by dawn.

As many as 2 million people had been evacuated from parts of Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana by late yesterday, leaving towns along 300 miles of coastline all but deserted as streets were turned into rivers, trees were blown down, power was knocked out and homes were wrecked.

The eye of the ferocious storm was predicted to pass here before daybreak, with winds of up to 135 mph that extended as far as 100 miles from its center. Forecasters said Ivan likely would come ashore as a Category 4 storm, promising extensive damage.

Even before the center of the storm reached land, two deaths were reported near Panama City Beach, Fla., after what was believed to be a tornado connected to Ivan's swirling winds left the area looking like a "war zone," according to the local sheriff's office.

The storm's path shifted slightly to the north late yesterday, sparing historic and densely populated New Orleans from a direct hit. The worst damage was expected from the Alabama-Mississippi state line east across the Florida Panhandle - another blow for a state still recovering from the one-two punch in the past month from Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

"It's going to be a long, long night for some people," Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said as darkness fell last night and residents all along the Gulf Coast hunkered down to see what the storm would deliver by morning.

Escape routes jammed

Northbound traffic was bumper-to-bumper across the four states. Interstate 65 in Alabama was converted to an all-northbound escape route. Emergency shelters were filled to capacity from Pensacola, Fla., to western Alabama.

At a makeshift shelter in Mobile's Baker High School, the nervous evacuees included one person who was awaiting a heart transplant and nine pregnant women who were at or near their due date - among them, stepsisters Rhonda Smith, 21, and Colleen Homan, 24, who had hoped to flee farther but were told by their doctors that they should not drive.

"How am I going to get comfortable on the floor, with nothing but some pillows and blankets?" Smith moaned, to which Homan shot back: "I can't even get comfortable in my bed."

"But I'd still rather be here than outside," Smith said. "At least we have a roof."

About 700 National Guard troops were in place in southern Alabama. In New Orleans, authorities opened up the Louisiana Superdome to serve as a shelter for frail and elderly residents who could not leave.

Tourists stranded

Officials in New Orleans had urged more than 1.2 million people to leave the city and neighboring Jefferson Parish or move to higher ground. It was an order made difficult by the fact that many tourists were stranded in the city and many low-income residents do not have reliable transportation.

In the French Quarter, which made famous the potent alcoholic drink known as the Hurricane, residents and visitors enjoyed a few before the city's 2 p.m. curfew and said they were hopeful that Ivan would do little damage. New Orleans had not suffered a direct hit from a hurricane in 39 years, when Hurricane Betsy struck.

"Oh, we don't need luck," customer Kevin McCarthy said as he raised a glass at the Corner Oyster Bar in the French Quarter. "We need alcohol."

But the storm brought sobering warnings by late afternoon. Parts of New Orleans were flooded before sundown. Huge waves crashed to shore across the Gulf Coast, traffic lights twisted in the wind in abandoned downtowns, and boarded-up businesses locked their doors.

"If you have any other options other than staying, we want to encourage you to go ahead and evacuate," Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama said at a news conference.

In Washington, President Bush assured the governors of the four states in the path of Ivan that they would receive federal aid to deal with damage from the storm.

"I told all four governors the people of this country are praying for their safety," Bush said. "We pray that the storm passes as quickly as possible without any loss of life or loss of property."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has stored ice, water and generators in warehouses so supplies can be delivered quickly to affected areas, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. He said disaster-response and relief teams, including urban search and rescue units, were being deployed.

Ivan's far-reaching winds meant a vast stretch of the Gulf Coast could get hit by a storm surge of 10 to 16 feet and up to 15 inches of rain. Reaching land, Ivan was expected to move northeast; forecasters said it could bring flooding as far north as Kentucky and North Carolina.

"If you want to do a comparison, it is the size of Frances, with the impact of Charley," Florida Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings told reporters.

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