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Hurricane Opal Hits Florida; 100,000 Flee


PENSACOLA, Fla. — Hurricane Opal lashed the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday like a steel whip, killing one person and sending 100,000 others into headlong flight from the worst blow since a storm that took more than 250 lives along the Gulf Coast in 1969.

Opal struck just east of Pensacola at 6 p.m. local time. Wind howled at 125 m.p.h. and roared in gusts to 144 m.p.h. Rain raked across beaches, and surf pounded like a headache. Storm surges sent tides to 20 feet above normal, and hurricane-spawned tornadoes hurtled across the countryside. One ripped through a trailer park in Okaloosa County, killing a 76-year-old woman.

Bumper-to-bumper cars and pickup trucks lined highways to the horizon as people sought shelter inland. Florida officials ordered residents to evacuate a 150-mile stretch from Pensacola to Wakulla Beach, south of Tallahassee. Lines formed at gasoline stations, but some people boarded up their homes with plywood, shut down their appliances and rode out the worst of the storm.

The hurricane moved inland at 22 m.p.h., decreasing in force. "It will remain powerful until tomorrow afternoon," said Bill Frederick, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters said Opal would pound Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and finally the hollows of Kentucky with heavy rain, tornadoes and tropical-storm-force winds of 75 m.p.h. before blowing itself out.

NASA postponed today's scheduled launch of the space shuttle Columbia because of the storm, and President Clinton declared a major disaster in both Florida and Alabama to supplement state and local recovery efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent in relief teams and made plans to fly in water and other supplies.

The hurricane knocked out electricity to more than 357,000 homes and businesses, or half of Gulf Power's customers in the Panhandle. As midnight approached, much of the city of Pensacola was dark. Steve Higginbottom, a spokesman for the utility, said some of the customers were in remote areas. He said it might take up to a month to restore power to all of them.

Troops Mobilized

At the peak of the storm, signs blew down in Pensacola, and bus benches flew through the streets. Shingles sailed off roofs. More than 55,000 people were evacuated from the Pensacola area alone, and Gov. Lawton Chiles and other officials mobilized 3,500 National Guard troops and 700 extra police officers to guard homes and provide other assistance.

At the Pensacola Holiday Inn, guests registered by flashlight. One was Will Long, 40, a Honda sales manager from Atlanta, who had come with seven trailer-trucks loaded with $3 million worth of generators for emergency crews. He also brought a 12-pack of beer stowed in an ice chest. He offered the beer to fellow guests.

"It's a hurricane!" he said by way of explanation. "The rules are there are no rules."

His trip from Atlanta, normally a five-hour drive, had taken 14 hours because of the wind and heavy rain. At one point, he said, the hurricane grew so intense that he decided to head back to Georgia. But northbound traffic had ground into a dead stop.

"It looked like the Santa Monica Freeway on a Friday," said Long, a Pasadena, Calif., native. "A hundred miles of it."

Hurricanes, he said, are more unnerving than earthquakes.

"When an earthquake hits, by the time you realize it, it's over," he said. "But hurricanes really eat at you. It's the anticipation. You know they're coming. It's the Big Evil out there."

One of Long's drinking partners was Larry Baldwin Jr., a 23-year-old auto repairman from Destin, a hard-hit beach community to the east. He had fled Destin that morning with his 89-year-old grandmother, only to find himself stuck in traffic.

Trapped in Homes

The worst moment came in the early afternoon, just outside Pensacola, when an accident blocked a freeway, stranding the two of them for more than three hours on a causeway bridge.

"The guy on the radio was saying, 'There's a tornado watch! Take cover wherever you are!' " Baldwin said, "I'm sitting in a 1979 Fleetwood Cadillac on a bridge. I mean, we couldn't turn around. We were just wedged in. I was getting ready to hop out of the car and strap myself to a post."

Baldwin and his grandmother finally made it to a church in Pensacola, where they rode out the storm. Then they found one of the last rooms still available at the Holiday Inn.

"We survived," Baldwin said. But he was not so sure about his house back in Destin, or his dog, or his three cats.

Many residents of Pensacola who waited too long to evacuate were trapped in their homes. Those who did flee caused one massive traffic jam on U.S. 29, heading north into Alabama, and another on eastbound Interstate 10, where traffic slowed to 5 m.p.h.

More than 15,000 people sought refuge in 42 emergency shelters in Santa Rosa County, northeast of Pensacola. Several shelters in Escambia County, to the northwest, reported food shortages. One shelter designed to hold 500 people was filled with more than 900.

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