PENSACOLA, Fla. — Hurricane Elena mushroomed into a potential killer in the Gulf of Mexico today and poised its 100-m.p.h. winds and 12-foot tides for a Labor Day weekend assault on the beach resorts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham, saying he feared "the needless loss of thousands of lives," ordered a door-to-door evacuation of seven Florida counties seen as the most likely target of Elena, a 300-mile-wide storm marching slowly north toward an expected landfall early Saturday.
More than 100,000 people from the Panhandle's white beaches to Louisiana's bayous fled the burgeoning wrath of Elena on Thursday, and officials said Graham's order prompted another 318,000 residents and holiday vacationers to jam highways inland.
The National Hurricane Center declared the storm a "major hurricane on the order of Frederic," which hit the central Gulf Coast in 1979 and killed 13 people along a $2.3-billion swath of destruction.
Forecasters warned that Elena's winds could build to 130 m.p.h. with storm waves of up to 12 feet before striking land by 8 a.m. Saturday and said the storm could cause $1 billion damage.
By midday today, the hurricane was 140 miles south of Pensacola and moving north at 5 m.p.h.
Graham dispatched 1,600 National Guard troops to help in the massive movement to higher ground.
Hurricane warnings flew from Grande Isle, La., to Apalachicola, Fla., and forecasters warned that the storm could spawn tornadoes and flash floods along the central Gulf Coast.
Much of Pensacola, a city of 57,000 people, and the condominium coves of the Florida Panhandle were deserted today. Schools closed and airlines canceled flights in Pensacola and Mobile, Ala.
"All I want to do is have my life now," said Richard Worsnop as he left his home in Ville Venice, Fla. "I've lived on the water 18 years and this is the worst storm to come along. I just hate to think about my house not being here when I get back."
Some Pensacola merchants waited until early today to board up plate glass windows, particularly in the Seville historic district lined with 18th- and 19th-century homes converted to shops.
"This house is listed with the National Register of Historic Places," dress shop owner Debra Wheeler said. "It's priceless. It's part of our heritage."
Officials estimated $10 million in tourist cancellations because of the storm in Gulfport, Miss., alone.