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Florida City Is Cut Down, Cut Off by Ivan

With its main bridges ruined, relief is slowed in Pensacola. The search for the dead continues.

September 19, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Search and rescue teams with corpse-sniffing dogs combed through the wrecked subdivision of Grande Lagoon on Saturday, spray-painting each house with bright-orange symbols describing what they found inside.

Some of the houses had dissolved under a wall of water; others had been peeled away, layer by layer, by the wind. Gables sat in intersections, boats had rammed into living rooms, and facades stood with nothing behind them, like a Hollywood set.

There are 20 miles of neighborhoods like this in Pensacola, a city still absorbing the catastrophic damage done to it.

By Saturday night, the death toll for the county stood at eight. Twelve people were missing.

Many here are likely to be without power for weeks. To make matters worse, Pensacola is cut off from both directions by major bridge collapses, forcing a column of National Guard troops, electric workers and volunteers to file into the city on narrow state highways.

Sonya Smith of the Escambia County Emergency Management Agency said that relief efforts that would normally take a few hours were now "taking 15 hours" because of the difficulty of getting around and lack of power.

Disc jockeys began recommending recipes for beef that had thawed after days without electricity, and a listener from Melino, north of Pensacola, called into a country music radio station to invite strangers to share a huge batch of venison stew.

Pensacolans waited for gas and water in lines that wrapped around city blocks.

"Everyone's using their grills, doing what they can. They sit around, with no TV, and talk," said Anthony Doyle, 40, a store manager. "They're not worried about what they don't have."

Hurricane Ivan and its remnants have been blamed for at least 45 deaths in the United States, 16 of them in Florida. Its winds and rains caused damage across more than a dozen states, from Alabama to New Jersey. Before it hit the U.S. Thursday, it caused 70 deaths in the Caribbean and left many thousands homeless.

Three weeks are likely to pass before power is fully restored in the Pensacola area.

The storm destroyed 790 of the 1,579 miles of electrical transmission lines that serve northwest Florida, according to Gulf Power. Half the phone lines in the area were severely damaged by the storm, and the power outage has paralyzed the city's main sewage treatment plant.

But Smith, the emergency services spokeswoman, said she was encouraged by the steady stream of National Guard and utility workers into the area.

"The cavalry has arrived and is continuing to arrive," she said.

Whole swaths of Pensacola seemed beyond repair. A 40-foot water surge hit Perdido Key, a slender island dotted with candy-colored resort complexes, filling apartment units with fine white sand from the beach.

Police blocked the bridge to the island Saturday.

In a stark landscape of blasted buildings, only one resident was visible: a man sitting quietly in a doorway in sunglasses. He had apparently ridden out the storm, but would not respond to questions. A search and rescue team had spray-painted the words "One live" on the building.

When emergency staff find locals after a storm, "they're kind of shell-shocked. They're dehydrated," said Butch Kinerny, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who was touring the island.

Authorities had also cordoned off Grande Lagoon, preserving the whole neighborhood as the storm had left it, with each house's contents blown into the road. Two rooms of a house, including a child's bedroom, had detached and landed in a yard.

"We can't figure out where that belongs," said Dan Cuoco, who was leading a search and rescue team from one house to the next. "We can't find a match for it."

During initial sweeps of the neighborhood, police found the body of a man who had drowned in his house, said Sgt. Rex Blackburn of the Escambia County Sheriff's Department.

Another man who stayed, Robert Maxham, 74, was gathering loose foliage in front of his house. Maxham spent much of the storm braced against his garage door, holding it shut with two-by-fours as the wind threw him back again and again and he prayed to God to give him strength. When the storm was over, the damage to his house was "so minor I'm ashamed to even point to it," Maxham said.

President Bush was scheduled to visit the subdivision today, and county officials had brought groups of journalists for tours. Homeowners, eager to begin picking through their possessions, waited outside the gate, but county officials prevented them from entering.

Ken and Caral Vargas, 56 and 55, had spent two days waiting, with a growing sense of frustration that they were not permitted in. "We have half a house in our pool, and half a house in our backyard," said Ken Vargas. "It just doesn't seem fair."

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