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Storm Rips Into Coastal Mississippi : Damage Is Massive in 35-Mile Strip; Injuries Are Minor

September 03, 1985|BARRY BEARAK and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writers

BILOXI, Miss. — Cruelly indecisive Hurricane Elena ended its destructive wandering early Monday and thundered into the Mississippi coast, its 125-m.p.h. winds smashing homes and businesses, sparking fires from downed electrical lines and sending surging tides across island communities.

After five days spent lurching about the Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane uprooted thousands of trees and centered its fury on a 35-mile stretch of coastline from Gulfport east to Pascagoula.

At least half the stores and homes in the oceanfront communities of Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs were damaged, officials said.

No Deaths Reported

But the storm proved not to be a killer, due largely to widespread evacuations. By late Monday, no deaths--and only minor injuries--had been reported. Earlier, the storm was held responsible for the death of at least one man in Florida, and officials there reported a smattering of injuries.

"We came out like champs on this one," said Richard Glaczier, spokesman for Harrison County Civil Defense in Biloxi.

But the material toll was massive. A 12-foot tidal surge ripped 50 homes and businesses off the west end of Dauphin Island. In Biloxi, a tornado spawned by the raging storm tore the roof from a senior citizens' shelter, forcing paramedics to crawl through the wreckage to rescue 200 persons.

Nearly 400 persons who had sought refuge in Gulfport's Central Elementary School were thrust out into the storm when a tornado smashed the school's roof. In another Biloxi shelter, one person was injured when a tornado smacked the center. Along the waterfront, Hurricane Elena punched the glass from hotel windows--even from the windows of the Broadwater Beach Hotel, which had been protectively covered with wood.

Shopping Centers Destroyed

In Gautier, between Pascagoula and Biloxi, two shopping centers housing a total of 12 stores were blown apart by tornadoes. "I have yet to see a structure in Gautier that doesn't have some sort of damage," said volunteer Fire Capt. Robert McLaurin. "We don't have the first business that can operate. We need food, water and gasoline."

The hurricane struck, like a mean, staggering giant, just before dawn and stamped a path through the coast. At 8 a.m. the calm eye moved over land, giving those holed up in homes or evacuation centers an hourlong respite before winds once again howled.

All across the coastal zone, trees flew through the air and crashed into houses, scattered fires were lit by downed electrical wires and sudden drops in air pressure blasted out windows. Live oak, pine and pecan trees littered almost every road, filling the air with the scent of freshly split wood.

Hurricane Frederic--called the most destructive hurricane in economic terms this century when it hit in 1979--and Hurricane Camille also struck this coast. Hurricane Frederic caused an estimated $2.3 billion in damage, while Hurricane Camille, in 1969, left 300 dead and hundreds missing in its wake.

Efforts to put a price tag on damage from Hurricane Elena were hampered late Monday by the closures of most roadways, strewn with debris and undermined by flooding. But on Dauphin Island alone, sheriff's deputies estimated damage at $30 million. Before the storm, the tiny resort was home to 1,400 vacation cottages.

In some areas, Hurricane Elena was initially considered more damaging than Hurricane Frederic or Hurricane Camille, indicating the economic toll could approach the billions.

"The damage here was more extensive than either Hurricane Camille or Hurricane Frederic," Civil Defense official Michael Hampton said in Biloxi. "On the average, four houses on every block in our city have major roof damage from fallen trees."

In Pascagoula, less than 40 miles to the west, a Red Cross volunteer worker described the terrain as "bombed out."

600,000 Evacuate

More than 600,000 people, residents and Labor Day tourists alike, fled the western Gulf Coast area Saturday when Hurricane Elena mounted increased strength and began barreling toward land. The storm had threatened the same area on Thursday and Friday, then moved east and for two days dallied off the central Florida coast, its powerful winds causing millions of dollars in damage. Florida officials estimated that more than 1,000 homes--most of them in trailer parks--were damaged or destroyed.

On Monday, Mississippi Gov. Bill Allain urged residents who fled the oncoming hurricane to stay away from home for several days "and do a lot of praying." Authorities were concerned that electrical power, cut to 240,000 homes, would not be restored for days.

As the hurricane reached inland and dissolved into a tropical storm, Allain asked the federal government to declare the 80-mile Mississippi coast a disaster area.

National Guard Mobilized

In Mississippi and Louisiana, National Guard troops were called out to aid in cleanup efforts and protect homes and businesses.

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