PENSACOLA, Fla. — Hurricane Elena mushroomed into a potential killer Friday, prompting the evacuation of 100,000 people from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana's bayous.
The hurricane, with 100 m.p.h. winds and 12-foot tides, poised 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 counties seen as the most likely target of Elena, a 300-mile-wide mass of fury marching slowly north.
More than 100,000 people from the Panhandle's white beaches to Louisiana's bayous fled the burgeoning wrath of Elena 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 waves of up to 12 feet before striking land. They said the storm could cause $1 billion in damage.
By midday Friday, 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.
"Immediate evacuation is necessary to avoid the needless loss of thousands of lives," Graham said. "If the hurricane strikes the Florida coast, coastal residents face almost certain death, or they can evacuate immediately and protect their lives."
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.
"It's not improbable the winds could get to 120 m.p.h. or 130 m.p.h. before the center crosses the coast. It could be pretty bad," hurricane forecaster Jim Lynch said.
"It would certainly not be out of the question to think of this as a billion-dollar-class hurricane," forecaster Mark Zimmer said.
Much of Pensacola, a city of 57,000 people, and the condominium coves of the Florida Panhandle were deserted Friday. Schools closed and airlines canceled flights in Pensacola and Mobile, Ala.
"All I want to do is save 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."
"I battened down the house," said Marty Rasmussen. "I knew the day was going to come when a big storm was coming."
Some Pensacola merchants waited until early Friday 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," said dress shop owner Debra Wheeler. "It's priceless. It's part of our heritage."
Graham and the governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana declared emergencies Thursday when the hurricane became an imminent threat to the Gulf Coast. Officials said about 100,000 people left homes and hotels along the coast and another 20,000 evacuated off-shore oil rigs.
Officials estimated $10 million in tourist cancellations in Gulfport, Miss., alone.
The storm began as a disturbance off the coast of Africa nine days ago and grew to hurricane strength as it swept into the warm Gulf of Mexico early Thursday.
Winds grew to 100 m.p.h. early Friday and the storm slowed its forward movement to about 5 m.p.h. It also turned more northerly toward the Florida Panhandle, perhaps easing the threat to Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.