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Hurricane Leaves Death and Destruction in South : Weather: Toll climbs to 15 as storm fades. 2 million left without power, 1,100 homes damaged or destroyed.

October 06, 1995|MIKE CLARY and JESSE KATZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Hurricane Opal, the second-costliest storm in Florida history, blew itself out Thursday, leaving 15 people dead in four states, 2 million others without electricity and at least 1,100 homes flattened or crumpled like tinfoil.

In addition to a 76-year-old woman killed when a hurricane-spawned tornado struck her Okaloosa County mobile home, authorities said seven people were killed in Georgia; six were killed in Alabama, including two who were crushed by a tree, and one was killed in North Carolina, a man also crushed by a tree.

Authorities estimated damage to insured property at $1.8 billion in Florida alone. Residents found their boats on their lawns, their furniture in the Gulf of Mexico and their swimming pools filled with seawater. Their streets were littered with glass, boards and shingles. Many had no drinking water or sewer service.

Opal lost its punch as it blew north-northeast at 29 m.p.h. The storm's sustained winds dropped to 35 m.p.h., and it was downgraded to a tropical depression. At nightfall, it was in Kentucky, dumping rain into the hollows of Appalachia and delaying air travel. Tourists fled the South and vowed never to come back in hurricane season.

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles met with President Clinton's Cabinet officers to coordinate relief. Fifteen counties in the Panhandle were approved for federal aid. Opal was expected to be the most expensive storm since Hurricane Andrew, which holds the record for inflicting $17 billion in damage to property in South Florida in 1992.

Those without power were in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas. Nearly 4,500 police and National Guard troops were posted in Florida to prevent looting. Panama City Beach and surrounding Bay County, where an estimated 100 homes were destroyed and 1,000 damaged, were under a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

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Authorities put Panama City Beach under a lockout. State troopers barred entry to everyone, even residents. There was no telephone service, no electricity, no running water. The city, with its washed-out roads, tattered awnings and shredded signs, had the look of a ghost town.

Many residents, frustrated by the lockout, grew angry. Bay County announced that it would open several "comfort stations" to offer ice and drinking water along roads where the residents waited impatiently in their cars. But trucks bringing the water got tied up in traffic, and the stations stayed closed.

Frustration mounted.

"The only reason [to keep people out] is to protect their lives," said David Miller, the county public safety director. "If they listened enough to leave, then they ought to listen when they're trying to come back. . . . There are dangling power lines, poles and debris."

Next door in Walton County, officials urged residents to stay away for at least another day. "Don't come home tonight," Mike Barker, a spokesman for the Walton County emergency operations center, warned in ominous tones on the local radio station.

"It is very dangerous to try and get in your homes."

As a further deterrent, Barker added that snakes, driven to high ground by the hurricane, were being discovered in unexpected places.

None of this kept people from trying to return anyway. Roads into both counties, jammed the day before by fleeing residents, were jammed again as those same people tried to head back home.

They fell in behind National Guard convoys, power company crews and semi-trailer trucks carrying food and water.

"We went to my dad's in Ft. Walton Beach, where the eye passed over," said Darlene Henslee, stopped at a roadblock just west of Panama City Beach. "We were real lucky."

With her were her husband, Ken, two daughters, a cocker spaniel, a rabbit and a parrot named Misty.

"We don't even know if our house is still there," Henslee added apprehensively.

"I'm starting to panic."

One of the few businesses trying to reopen in Panama City Beach was the Paradise Market, where owner Terry Stalvey was bagging 1,200 pounds of ice to sell before it melted.

"If we get power back, we could get open this weekend," he said. "Or at least have a party."

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West of Panama City Beach, in an upscale community of 1,100 called Seaside, damage was minimal to tin-roofed, wooden homes designed in a distinctive Victorian style.

But storm surges had knocked down docks, swept away sugar-white sand dunes and left a 30-foot cliff in their place.

Seaside, too, looked deserted.

Richard McCullen, proprietor of the Dolphin Inn, counted his blessings. "A hurricane is a minor irritation," he said, "compared to the joys of living here."

To the northwest, in a cluster of small communities--Navarre, Ft. Walton Beach, Destin and Okaloosa Island--the storm had swallowed roads, tossed boats like corks, leveled beach dunes and filled hundreds of oceanfront cottages with several feet of debris-strewn saltwater.

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