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Ivan Pummels Gulf States -- and It's Not Done Yet

At least 20 die amid extensive damage. More havoc is expected as the storm heads north.

September 17, 2004|Ellen Barry and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. — Hurricane Ivan raked communities in four gulf states Thursday, spawning tornadoes in beleaguered Florida and killing at least 20 people, including two who were carried 400 yards from their home by a twister in this Panhandle town.

Ivan damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings, left more than 1 million homes and businesses without power and breached two highways -- and yet another storm threatens the Southeast next week.

By nightfall Thursday, Ivan was headed north and east, toward the southern Appalachians, where scientists expected it to stall today, bringing as much as 20 inches of rain and the threat of flash floods.

"Inland flooding will be a major issue," said Jennifer Pralgo, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

For at least the next two days, tornadoes are also still possible in Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina, Pralgo said.

Packing 130-mph winds, Ivan roared ashore near Mobile, Ala., as a Category 3 storm before dawn Thursday. It brought hurricane-strength winds to 200 miles of coastline, and damage was widespread: a shredded roof of a church in Mobile; billboards crumpled like tissue in Pascagoula, Miss.; a storage tank ripped from its moorings and cast adrift near Venice, La.

Still, most communities appeared to have weathered the storm better than anticipated -- except in Florida's Panhandle, where Ivan's deadliest strikes came in the form of tornadoes that spun off the core of the hurricane. The National Weather Service office in Tallahassee, Fla., said it had issued 124 tornado warnings in 24 hours, more than anyone there could remember.

Florida has been struck by three major hurricanes in a little over a month. Combined damage from the storms could top $25 billion, officials said. One-quarter to one-third of that total likely will be attributed to Ivan.

Four of the deaths caused by Ivan occurred when a tornado tore through three mobile homes and a wood-frame house in Blountstown, northeast of Panama City, Fla. Rescuers told of digging for bodies and survivors while the next patch of tornadoes bore down on them.

"People are screaming at you, and you have to dig under 5 feet of rubble -- floors and sheetrock. One man was underneath a refrigerator," said Dan Wyrick, a volunteer firefighter in the Blountstown area.

"It was blinding: dark rain and wind blowing like crazy," he said. "I had one of the girls on my back and was carrying her out. And the dispatcher called and said: 'Y'all get down, we got another tornado coming down the same path.' It made all the people we were trying to get panic: 'Don't leave me out here!' "

Two of the victims' bodies were found in a cow pasture about 400 yards from their home, Wyrick said.

The houses that were hit directly were obliterated. A 40-foot tree in the middle of the neighborhood was stripped clean; it looked as if it had been dead for years. A piece of aluminum siding was impaled on top, and a wet T-shirt was wrapped around the bare trunk, about halfway up.

Gordon Ammon, 46, a truck driver, lost his mobile home to the tornado. Hours later, he stood in shock in the field where remnants of what had been a tightknit neighborhood were strewn about: a red pocket Bible, a knotted mass of yarn and shards of records, including Johnny Cash and Christmas albums.

"Look," Ammon said, gazing out at the field. "Nothing. This is six families' stuff, from here to yonder."

Many communities in the Panhandle were similarly devastated.

Windows imploded in high-rise buildings. Huge trees toppled over, their root systems as tall as the nearby houses. Other trees snapped in half.

Nearly 80% of the homes and businesses in an eight-county stretch of the Panhandle were without power, and officials said it could be a month before power would be restored everywhere. Reflecting Florida's withering run of weather lately, officials said Thursday that they still were trying to restore power to about 160,000 homes and businesses struck by hurricanes Charley and Frances.

After coming ashore, Ivan broke apart portions of two highways -- including Interstate 10, which runs through the Florida Panhandle and is a primary east-west thoroughfare in the Southeast.

The I-10 bridge over Escambia Bay, east of Pensacola, Fla., failed during the storm, Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Tommie Speights said. With dive teams and other inspectors still making their assessments late Thursday, Speights said that the damage was severe.

"Several of the spans are missing," he said. "The east- and westbound approaches have been heavily damaged." He estimated that the interstate would be closed for months.

U.S. 90, a highway that parallels the interstate, also was washed out west of Pace, Fla. Speights said officials would attempt to repair it within the next few days. That highway would then be used as a detour for Interstate 10, but likely would have only one lane open in each direction.

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