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Howling Storm Batters Florida, Stalls in Gulf

September 01, 1985|BARRY BEARAK and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writers

YANKEETOWN, Fla. — Howling "like the hounds of hell," Hurricane Elena hung off Florida's central Gulf Coast on Saturday, whipping the state with bullet-like rain, spawning tornadoes that flung mobile homes into the air and flooding a 700-mile swath of beachfront.

Almost 1 million persons fled the storm as it approached from the Gulf of Mexico Friday night and early Saturday, and most remained away from their homes throughout the day as the storm sat stationary, 50 miles west of here.

The storm spun off smaller but still destructive weather systems throughout Florida. In Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Coast, one man was killed when a tree limb torn loose by high winds or lightning smashed into his car and broke his neck, police there said.

Tornadoes swirled through the mid-Florida town of Leesburg, tossing more than 100 mobile homes off their foundations and injuring at least seven persons. Authorities said the toll could have been higher, but most of the park's elderly residents had fled north.

"It sounded like a bomb hit," park manager Harold Dooley said.

Early Saturday, Elena marched relentlessly east-northeast across the gulf waters at a 10 m.p.h. clip. Hurricane warnings were posted from east of Tallahassee in the Florida Panhandle to Fort Myers, in the southern part of the state. Officials guessed then that the storm would find land near the Yankeetown-Cedar Key area.

But at noon, the storm's forward movement halted, and for hours it sat poised offshore. Forecasters said the 350-mile-wide storm, its whirling winds reaching 100 m.p.h., could strike anywhere at anytime.

"It's just like a top spinning around, wobbling back and forth, and we don't know what it's going to do," said Neil Frank, director of the National Hurricane Center.

Florida emergency officials, who organized the largest evacuation in state history, warned residents that the storm had not lost power and pleaded with those who had earlier refused to leave their homes to reconsider.

By late Saturday, more than 200,000 residents were housed in emergency shelters, and Florida Gov. Bob Graham's office estimated that another 800,000 were waiting out the storm elsewhere on higher ground.

But some residents began returning late Saturday, alarming emergency officials.

"There's a lot of people who have come back and they shouldn't have. We don't know what tomorrow is going to bring," said Sheriff's Deputy Gary Griffin of Franklin County, in Florida's Panhandle.

The mass evacuation early Saturday prompted huge traffic jams, particularly in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area. Some residents, carrying belongings in their arms, fled on foot.

Coastal towns were inundated as gulf tides rose and inland rivers overran their banks. Rain drummed steadily across the state, knocking out power to more than half a million residents in the St. Petersburg area alone.

Residents of the small beachfront communities in the mostly rural central Florida area took precautions to protect their homes and businesses, taping windows against the screaming wind.

In Cedar Key, where Elena was expected to hit land, Levy County Circuit Judge O. C. Fagan was stranded by flooded roads.

"When it blows, it howls like the hounds of hell," he said. "It's really kind of spooky."

Some, unlike Fagan, stayed voluntarily.

"There are some stubborn no-goes," Yankeetown Fire Chief Ed McMahon said, driving the town's old pumper truck, the only vehicle that could traverse the flooded roadways. "Pretty soon, the only way out of here will be by boat."

Volunteer fireman Jim Sparks said that about a dozen of the town's 600 fishermen and retirees bluntly refused to evacuate. "Mr. Kyper won't even answer his door," he said. "And Miss La France, she says she's lived through these before and she never leaves. The water is already up to her front door."

In Clearwater, near Tampa, some changed their minds--too late.

"Quite a few people are just refusing to move," sheriff's Lt. John Bocchichio said. "Now they're calling and saying, 'We made a mistake,' and we can't get them out. They're just going to have to ride it out."

Those who did leave lounged on church pews, school floors and, in Chiefland, at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

'A Happy Hour'

"We made a happy hour for the whole storm," post Commander Bill Mani said, hoisting a beer. "Everything is half a buck." Around him, sleeping bags and pillows were strewn about and a few evacuees played eight-ball on the post pool table.

Two hospitals, a dozen nursing homes and a prison were evacuated from the Pinellas County area, which stretches from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg, Civil Defense officials said. Sixty-eight expensive F-16 fighter planes were flown to Miami from MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa Bay, and 22 more were secured in their hangers.

Elderly persons with no means of transportation had earlier registered with the Fire Department; fire officials methodically evacuated all of them Friday night.

Hospital Evacuated

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