NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Elena whirled away from central Florida and careened northward toward the heavily populated western Gulf Coast Sunday, its leading edge slamming beachfront towns and trapping residents who waited too long to evacuate.
Nearly half a million residents of the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi and the southern Louisiana lowlands fled--most for the second time in three days. After the storm shifted slightly to the west late Sunday, New Orleans residents were warned to be ready to leave on short notice.
As its winds escalated to 125 m.p.h., hurricane warnings were issued for 500 miles of shorefront from Grand Isle, La., west of New Orleans, to Yankeetown, Fla., below the Panhandle.
Hundreds of thousands of residents who fled the low-lying Florida central coast Saturday remained in emergency centers as officials, fearing that the storm might shift back yet again, delayed lifting some mandatory evacuation orders. But thousands of Tampa-area residents were allowed to return to their homes late Sunday.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham ordered 1,200 National Guardsmen to enforce evacuation orders and put another 3,000 guardsmen on alert, should they be needed to control anxious residents or looters.
As the hurricane steadily advanced late Sunday, its rakish winds smashed coastal towns from Apalachicola, Fla., westward. Roofs were ripped from homes and flung across neighborhoods, traffic signs skimmed like Frisbees through the air and power shortages hit chunks of the coastline.
From southern Florida west around the Gulf Coast arc, rain pummeled virtually abandoned towns and cities, turning roadways into violent creeks, and floodwaters up to six feet deep were reported in several areas. Tornadoes that spun off from the 350-mile-wide main system had destroyed more than 150 residences, most of them in Florida trailer parks.
The hurricane's turn toward the western Gulf Coast and New Orleans marked a retracing of its earlier path. On Thursday and Friday, the 350-mile-wide storm appeared headed for Alabama, Mississippi and the Panhandle, but on Friday abruptly veered eastward to Florida's central Gulf Coast. Slowly, it marched to within 50 miles of land--then stopped.
The hurricane dawdled off the central coast for 24 hours until early Sunday, when it suddenly pulled back into the Gulf of Mexico. Its winds rose quickly from 100 m.p.h. to 125 m.p.h., and the storm barreled to the northwest, heading for land.
National Hurricane Center forecasters said the rapid change pushed the storm into a "strong . . . Category 3" hurricane, one of major proportions almost certain to cause more deaths or injury. Hurricanes are graded on a scale of one to five.
'Continuing to Intensify'
"It's moving right along on a track that would bring it in very near New Orleans around midday tomorrow (Monday)," National Hurricane Center forecaster Mark Zimmer said. The storm was about 225 miles east-southeast of New Orleans around midnight. But forecasters added that a slight change of direction could bring the storm ashore anywhere along a massive swath of land from Pensacola, Fla., to the Louisiana bayous.
"The significant thing is that Elena is continuing to intensify," Zimmer said.
"Whatever they're going to do, they better be doing it now. People should be on their way out now. If the center reaches the coast and they hadn't evacuated, they will be in big trouble," Zimmer said.
A statement released by the center said tides could reach 12 feet above normal, cutting off escape routes.
For some areas, the warning came too late. Apalachicola and other Panhandle towns were slammed by 95-m.p.h. winds by early evening. In Apalachicola, two airline hangars collapsed and aircraft were destroyed as the storm hit.
'Blowing Trees Down'
"It's too late to leave. It's blowing trees down. Tree trunks are blowing by all around my house," Nick Mosconis, 75, said by telephone from his Apalachicola house. Then the line went dead.
Nearby, Port St. Joe police officer Bill Eagle said his neighbor had called to report that Eagle's roof and pump house had flown by. "Windows are busting out. Trees are popping right out of the ground," he said. "It's sucked the water right out of our bay, and when it comes back in, we may have a tidal wave."
In Panama City Beach to the west, officials reported that the island town--swollen to 40,000 residents, twice its normal size, by Labor Day festivities--was 90% evacuated. Only two problems arose: A local bridge tender raised the Highway 79 drawbridge to allow two pleasure boats through, stymying the escape efforts of residents whose cars then backed up along the only route out.
'I'd Handcuff Her'
"I had an officer tell her that, if she let the bridge up one more time, I'd handcuff her to the wall," Panama City Beach Police Chief Lee Sullivan said.
Some residents also tried to drink their way through the storm, prompting officials to close all bars at 5:30 p.m. Overall, the evacuation proceeded smoothly.