Perilous trek from Mobile to Pensacola

Devastation: Downed power lines, destroyed bridge among dangers for motorists.

September 18, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PENSACOLA, Fla. - The Florida Panhandle - an endless vista of deep, lonely forests and clean beaches - is usually a pleasant place, but Hurricane Ivan introduced danger, uncertainty and astonishing disarray.

Even something as simple as a drive from Mobile, Ala., to the far side of Pensacola - usually a straight 70-mile dash down Interstate 10 - became an eight-hour crawl through a minefield of severed power lines, splintered trees and debris in the aftermath of the violent storm.

The interstate was not an option on Thursday night. Ivan had destroyed entire sections of it outside Pensacola, leaving Florida's narrow Route 90 as the only alternative. But that detour quickly descended into a blind obstacle course through tree trunks and low-hanging wires, and sharing narrow passages across driveways and front yards with oncoming traffic.

The course stopped entirely in Pensacola, where Ivan washed away an eastbound bridge and drivers were confronted with a hastily built police barrier and a detour sign pointing to nowhere. A turn at the sign directed traffic into the thick of Pensacola's downtown area, which residents say they would no longer recognize if not for the street signs - the few that are left.

Even as it slowly flashed past in the glow of the headlights, the destruction in downtown Pensacola was hard to overstate.

Entire buildings were reduced to piles of brick and wood. Cars were blown or washed into storefront windows, and the streets were a tangle of felled trees and power lines. Some buildings close to the water seemed certain to topple, their lower floors blown or washed down to the steel supports. National Guard troops in battle gear patrolled the roads, which seemed somehow appropriate.

The counties struck by Ivan all imposed curfews on public roads after dark, but the announcements were available only by television or radio, and few people picked up the signals in the darkened hurricane zone. Police officers warned of the curfew every few blocks but could offer no advice for drivers with no homes to return to.

One officer offered an escort through the city's debris, depositing drivers onto an east-side road with the warning: "It's narrow and dark, and I can't promise you what's down there. Be careful."

The route only got worse. As the road inched closer to the winding waterfront, the debris grew thicker, the felled trees larger, until the course was a literal zig-zag from one shoulder to the next, going off-road to avoid an electrical transformer and over a makeshift wooden ramp to clear a pile of metal roofing or siding.

Eventually the trees proved impassable, and police officers appeared to direct drivers into dark and unmarked side streets. One offered the guidance: "You can't go forward, and you can't turn back, but you can't stay here either."

Police officers eventually suggested a northern route toward Montgomery, Ala., offering that any road to anywhere was better than staying in Pensacola. They gave directions to Interstate 65 with the tip: "It takes an hour even on a good night. Good luck."

This northern route offered fewer obstacles, but any urge to go faster was quickly quashed by the emergence from the darkness of toppled buildings or still more trees. Police officers manned the most dangerous unlit intersections but offered little assurance that what lay ahead was safe, or even still there. About 20 miles north of Pensacola, deputies suggested that nothing ahead was passable and drivers needed to either turn back or pull over and wait until dawn.

A truck driver offered alternative advice. He explained that rural Highway 4 had been cleared for commercial vehicles and repair crews but that police were keeping it quiet.

Indeed, the two-lane road offered a 50-mile chute through the woods that had clearly seen the work of chainsaws and bulldozers. Giant convoys of trucks, police cars, heavy equipment and cars snaked through the one-lane path carved into the mess. The road finally deposited traffic onto Interstate 10 far beyond Ivan's wreckage, with only about 30 miles remaining before patches of electric lights appeared like a sunrise.

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