Gulf Coast prepares for lengthy recovery

Hurricane Ivan leaves behind destroyed homes, threatened livelihoods

September 19, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

GULF SHORES, Ala. - Joel Nichols slogged through 5 feet of water to see what Hurricane Ivan had done to his home.

It wasn't a pretty sight.

Pushing his bicycle over the sugary sand of the Alabama coast - 4 feet deep in spots over what a few days earlier had been a five-lane main drag through town - Nichols stepped into the surreal world of Ivan's aftermath.

Beach rentals were dumped from their pillars, tumbled on their sides. Air conditioners sat tossed around like dice on some titanic craps table. The ocean breeze whistled through hollowed-out condominiums.

"My stomach's slipping out on me to look at it," said Nichols, a construction worker. "This isn't the place I know at all. ... I guess I'll have plenty of work, and for a long time."

Along the Gulf Coast, Ivan left millions with the same head-shaking bewilderment. The storm's winds and waves left muck and destruction that transformed the landscape instantly and indelibly.

Ivan and its remnants - including tornadoes, more than a foot of rain in some places and flooding - have been blamed for 45 deaths in the United States. The storm was also blamed for 70 deaths in the Caribbean.

Insurance experts have estimated that damage could hit $10 billion.

Now residents of the devastated Gulf Coast say it's time to shake off the disbelief and discouragement and put their backs into the work of recovery.

That may be more easily said than done. Hundreds of thousands of people have been without power, and some areas, such as Pensacola, Fla., are not expected to have full power back for weeks.

"All that stuff in the grass, that's somebody's house," said Gulf Shores firefighter Danny Mayfield. "We're in for a tough stretch here."

The damage in the area was so severe that the only residents to see the mess Friday were the handful who persevered by foot or boat to sidestep the roadblocks set up by authorities to prevent looting and injuries.

With children in tow, Janet and Chris Eberly walked through an inland Gulf Shores neighborhood to see if Ivan had spared their home.

Even before reaching their doorstep, they knew their livelihood was in serious trouble. They run a 65-foot boat for dinner cruises and dolphin-watching excursions. They'd secured the boat well, and survived with probably no more than $10,000 in damage, they said.

But who, they wondered, will be around to board their boat?

"It's all about the condos," Janet Eberly said.

"If there's nobody in those condos," her husband joined in, "then we don't have customers. It'll take two years to get back to the way we were."

Gulf Shores has been transformed in recent years from the overlooked "Redneck Riviera" to a booming resort area aimed at the family market. Ivan hit in the slow season, when residents prepare for their October shrimp festival. Now the next tourist season lies in the uncertain future.

Elsewhere along and near the coast, Southerners slogged through an aftermath of short supplies, shattered utility systems and gridlock on the highways that Ivan didn't crush.

In Mobile, Ala., cars sat snarled in lines at the few gasoline stations where electricity had been restored.

"It's funny how something you take for granted like getting your gas tank filled gets so hard," said Elsie Mattson. "I don't think anything's going to be too simple for a while."

Outside Pensacola, the vehicles of relief workers, National Guard units and residents who had fled the coast for Ivan's arrival idled for miles in every direction in the snail's-crawl return to town.

In the city, those who rode out the storm hefted shovels and pounded hammers in the tedium of cleaning up and rebuilding.

Larry and Judy Pede moved from Delaware to Pensacola a year ago. When Ivan hit, they listened in horror as the wind and rain ripped off most of their roof and watched the rear, Gulf-facing third of their house shatter.

By week's end, they were scavenging the streets for the detritus of other buildings flung to the street to temporarily patch their home.

"The only thing you can do is try to get back what you've lost," Judy Pede said. "Thank God for insurance."

For John Doyle, 40 years old and homeless even before Ivan's rude run through town, the mess meant some day labor. The owner of a now-sodden real estate office in an upscale downtown neighborhood offered him $8 an hour, for as long as it takes, to pick up all that had been blasted off his building.

Yanking shingles from the street, he was covered in mud to his knees and his elbows as the temperature climbed into the 90s.

"It wears you out," he said. "But there's a lot to do. A lot."

Longtime residents of Pensacola's Old East Hill neighborhood marveled at how brutal Ivan's short reign was.

"I've never seen anything like this, nothing even close," said Theodore Bell.

He and his brother, Larry Bell, have lived in the area for more than 40 years.

"It wasn't real pretty here before," Larry Bell said. "It sure isn't pretty now. Will people fix it up? That's a hard one."

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