Altered landscape and a gator hunt

Sights: In Ivan's wake, the Gulf of Mexico moves a half-mile inland and a zoo goes hunting for reptiles that got away.

In Gulf Shores, Ala.

September 17, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GULF SHORES, Ala. - Sgt. Skip Callaway knew the streets would look like a green snowfall, and that roofs would come off and trees would blow down. He was even prepared to find death the morning after Hurricane Ivan hit his beachfront town.

But standing as he was yesterday, at the intersection of Route 59 and Zoo Drive, Callaway still found it hard to contemplate just how much change a storm like Ivan brings.

To his right was a crumpled restaurant, one of hundreds of damaged businesses in town. Straight ahead was the Gulf of Mexico - a half-mile further inland than it used to be. Two-foot waves were capping where street signs should have stood.

Shots rang out to his left, beyond the flooded parking lot of the Sawgrass Landing shopping center. Employees of the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo were trying to find and kill their escaped alligators before any got too far away - especially Chuckie, the 12-footer.

"I guess you never believe it until you see it," said Callaway, a member of the Gulf Shores Police Department. "And some of it, maybe you never believe."

This was what Hurricane Ivan had wrought in the resort town of Gulf Shores - far less destruction than expected, for which everyone was thankful. But more than enough flooding, wind damage and odd circumstances to unsettle the Alabama coast for weeks, and to leave a town filled with weather-related memories that will last a lifetime.

Route 59 was an obstacle course of tree limbs, lamp posts, fallen signs and low-swinging stop lights. Where floodwaters cut it at Zoo Drive lay a tangle of household goods, lawn furniture and other items scoured from the town's waterfront neighborhood, which remained swamped and inaccessible.

There was a paddle boat, a crate painted to look like a pirate's chest, a bar stool, a basketball, a freezer. With those, and all the lumber, plywood and shingles that washed ashore, you could build a new town and furnish it as well.

Callaway's main concern yesterday was the people. He knew some residents had chosen to ride out the hurricane in their beachfront homes despite the government-ordered evacuation, and with no phone service or passable roads, he had no way of knowing their fate. The water was not expected to recede for two days or more, and it was too choppy to navigate by boat.

"Even though it's called a mandatory evacuation, you can't physically remove people from their homes," said Callaway, who guessed that a half-dozen people were trapped in the swamped waterfront area. "You always worry about them though."

State officials announced at a press conference yesterday that all of Alabama's residents were safe and accounted for. Of course, they'd also said all of the animals in Gulf Shores' zoo had been evacuated. The error in that pronouncement was clear to anyone brave enough to walk across the flooded parking lot of Doc's Seafood Shack, where the zoo's front gate was under 4 feet of water.

David Hall, the zoo manager's husband, was wading near the entrance with water up to his waist and a shotgun at his shoulder. Zoo employee Rusty Gilbert took the right flank, holding a pistol above his head with both hands.

When a pair of eyes surfaced, Hall shot a foot behind them, then both men fired into the water as the reptile tried to escape.

"Where's the gator at?" Hall shouted when the shooting stopped.

"Gator's dead," Gilbert shouted back. "Rolled up on his belly and went under."

A few blind gropes in the water produced a scaly green tail that proved to be the end of a plump 4-footer. Gilbert's assessment that the animal was dead wasn't quite accurate, but a sharp knife to the head set things right.

"We don't need them loose," Hall said during a respite.

The other animals had been evacuated, he explained, but the alligators were too cumbersome and too dangerous to move. They were secure in their pens until the flooding, he said.

Hall wasn't sure how many were loose. And he still hadn't spotted Chuckie.

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