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Ivan Hits Alabama, Cutting Wide Swath Through Region

Officials fear the hurricane will leave downtown Mobile submerged. Wind, rain and waves reach across four gulf states.

September 16, 2004|Ellen Barry, Lianne Hart and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

MOBILE, Ala. — Hurricane Ivan made landfall with staggering force early this morning, lashing southern Alabama with 135 mph winds and threatening much of the Gulf Coast with surging floodwaters.

The storm's eye passed just east of this historic port town, the heart of a metropolitan area that is home to more than a quarter of a million people.

Families gathered in hallways and basements as trees snapped outside, transformers exploded and debris flew through the air.

"It's roaring here. It's a high, screaming whistle," said Mike Etheredge, a cook who was riding out the storm in a downtown restaurant. "It's definitely Mother Nature unleashed. You have no control over this."

Officials said the storm surge of as much as 16 feet, accompanied by 10 to 15 inches of rain, could submerge the city's downtown as the storm sweeps through.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami reported Wednesday evening that a buoy south of Dauphin Island, Ala., a narrow barrier island, had recorded a 45-foot swell as the storm lumbered toward shore.

"It's going to be a very frightening experience," Paulette Williams, director of emergency services in Mobile County, said as the storm moved closer Wednesday night.

As menacing as it appeared, the storm's track made the worst-case scenario -- a full-bore strike on New Orleans -- unlikely.

"There will be damage. But a direct hit would be a catastrophe," said Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Pete Schneider.

Government agencies were scrambling to prepare. President Bush said Wednesday that he had spoken to gulf state governors to pledge federal aid for recovery. The U.S. Coast Guard closed eight ports, including the ports of New Orleans and Mobile.

Federal officials cautioned that to a large degree, it didn't matter what precise track the storm took in its final hours before landfall. Hurricane-force winds extended 105 miles in every direction from Ivan's eye, with tropical-storm-force winds stretching nearly 100 miles beyond that. Four states lining the Gulf of Mexico -- Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- were being affected by the relentless wind and powerful waves.

Ivan, which killed 68 people as it tore through the Caribbean in recent days, carried sustained winds of 135 mph as it came ashore. At 1 a.m. CDT the storm was moving north across the coast at about 12 mph.

Damage from the storm is not expected to be limited to coastal areas; hurricane center scientists said Ivan could bring 20 inches of rain and widespread flooding to parts of the Southeast in coming days, particularly in the Appalachians, where it threatened to stall, hemmed in by other weather systems.

"Prepare for the worst," meteorologist Hector Guerrero said. "Hope for the best. But prepare for the worst."

Wednesday evening, long before the heart of the storm arrived, two people were reported killed by tornadoes in Panama City, Fla., a beachfront community in the Panhandle. Other victims were believed trapped in destroyed buildings, although officials were still sifting through the wreckage.

More than 300,000 people had evacuated 13 Panhandle counties by Wednesday night, said Frank Penela, a spokesman for the Florida Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

Power outages occurred as Ivan's core approached shore, and several houses were reported destroyed in beach towns as exhausted and exasperated emergency officials braced for yet another storm. Florida has been struck by a tropical storm and two major hurricanes in a little more than a month before Ivan.

"It's one of the hazards of living in paradise," Penela said. "But we are a resilient state."

On the western edge of the storm, those still in New Orleans were breathing a little more easily late Wednesday.

The city is 6 feet below sea level and ill-equipped to handle a major storm. Emergency officials had said that in the event of a direct hit, flooding could overwhelm the complex system of levees and pumps serving the city. Some predicted that 50,000 people in a metropolitan area of 1.2 million could have drowned in 20 feet of water, sewage and chemical spills from industrial plants.

"You'd essentially have a big bowl of water with nowhere to go," Schneider said.

Ivan's slight turn away from New Orleans was of particular relief because a massive evacuation there had threatened to dissolve into chaos in recent days -- with miles upon miles of gridlock, no hotel rooms and no rental cars left.

The city had opened just one public shelter, at the Louisiana Superdome. But refuge inside the 72,000-seat stadium was reserved for the frail, the elderly, the disabled and families with children.

Many of the city's poorer residents had no haven to turn to and no cars to escape in; city officials advised them to try "vertical evacuation" -- going to the upper floors of buildings or into attics.

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