Hurricane Ivan

Fla. Panhandle takes brunt

Amid floods, high wind and tornadoes, at least 13 dead

September 17, 2004|By Ivan Penn and Gail Gibson | Ivan Penn and Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PENSACOLA, Fla. - Hurricane Ivan delivered its worst blows yesterday to storm-haunted Florida, brutalizing the state's Panhandle region with widespread flooding, a devastating band of tornadoes and at least 13 deaths.

The powerful storm, the third hurricane to hit Florida in five weeks, left residents across the area without electricity, water or phone service. It washed out part of a major bridge along Interstate 10 here and left rescue workers digging through the rubble of tornado-strewn homes, fearing more deaths.

"We need some prayers," a weary Gov. Jeb Bush said in Tallahassee. "We need a break."

Ivan had threatened extensive damage across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida when its eye passed over tiny Gulf Shores, Ala., just before 3 a.m. yesterday, surrounded by winds of about 130 mph. And it delivered a powerful punch - knocking out power to more than 1 million residents in the four states, ripping off roofs, ruining homes and toppling trees all along the Gulf Coast.

Two more deaths were reported in Mississippi and one in Georgia, which also saw heavy rains and tornado winds spawned by Ivan. Four ailing evacuees died after being moved from southern Louisiana to safer parts of that state.

But nowhere was the damage as extensive as in Florida's Panhandle, where yesterday residents surveyed their torn homes, battered businesses and flooded yards with a sense of awe and horror.

Leta Alling and her family rode out the hurricane in her sport utility vehicle after the storm winds and rain became too much for them to bear at their home on Perdido Bay, to the west along the Alabama line.

"The winds were awful. It sounded like a train came through here. It sounded like it was coming through here and ripping everything up - and it did," said Alling, 35, who said she and her husband and their two children raced from room to room as water from Ivan began flooding their four-bedroom, three-bathroom brick home.

When they returned home yesterday morning, flood waters were waist-deep in the front yard - "We opened our garage door and the water just poured out," Alling said. "I can't believe this. I'm just thankful to be alive."

`A total loss'

Nearby, the storm surge had destroyed 67-year-old Ken Register's boat pier and flooded the brick rambler where he has lived since 1970 with wave after wave of storm water.

"We're pretty much a total loss down there," Register said as he looked over the small pond that formed around his house. "Everything in the house is lost."

By midafternoon yesterday, Ivan had weakened to a tropical storm but still had sustained winds of up to 60 mph and was expected to dump as much of 15 inches of rain as it moved across the South - raising concerns about possible flooding in the Appalachian Mountains.

There was potentially more bad weather news as well: Tropical Storm Jeanne was moving across the Caribbean yesterday and could reach the United States by early next week.

That storm gained hurricane strength briefly yesterday, and forecasters predicted it could strengthen again before it hits the Atlantic coastline - anywhere from Florida to South Carolina.

At least two deaths have been blamed on Jeanne. Ivan's death toll stood at 68 as it passed through the Caribbean before reaching the United States.

Across the Gulf Coast, people had braced for the worst. But by late yesterday, authorities generally said they were relieved that the damage was not worse.

Vulnerable New Orleans, much of which sits below sea level, saw strong winds but only minimal rain. In Mississippi and Alabama, there were widespread reports of flooded roads, battered beaches and downed power lines.

But the damage did not rival parts of Florida.

In Pensacola, a storm surge breached downtown seawalls and sent a flood three to four feet deep through shops and restaurants. In Blountstown, a tornado at a mobile home park killed four people. And in Milton, an 8-year-old girl was killed when a tree fell on her family's mobile home.

Authorities feared the toll could rise. Guy Tunnell, executive director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said officials had yet to thoroughly search the barrier islands near Pensacola.

"People chose to stay for whatever reason," Tunnell said. "They're mostly high-end homes and condos. But I think we're going to be shocked when we get out there."

In a change of weekend plans, President Bush decided to skip a Nascar race and a separate campaign appearance in New Hampshire on Sunday and fly to Alabama and Florida to inspect hurricane damage, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Bush spoke to his brother, the Florida governor, and to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley by phone while campaigning in Minnesota. The president made three trips to politically important Florida to comfort residents after earlier storms.

Still, the hurricane season's seemingly relentless assault on the state - by Charley, Frances, Ivan and, perhaps, Jeanne - is not so extraordinary, forecasters insisted yesterday.

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