Fickle Erin, which slammed Florida’s East Coast as a hurricane before fizzling into a tropical storm that swept across the state, built into a hurricane again today as it headed for the Big Easy.
On Wednesday, Erin blew ashore with 85 mph winds shortly after 1 a.m. near Vero Beach, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, and roared across the state. It sank two ships, killed two people and knocked out power to more than 1 million people. Five people were missing at sea.
The landing took the punch out of the storm, and Erin moved across the state’s midsection as a tropical storm. By early today, however, it had soaked up strength from the warm Gulf waters and picked up hurricaneforce winds of 75 mph again.By evening, Erin’s winds had climbed back to 70 mph, and forecasters said they expected the storm to pass the 74 mph hurricane threshold by the time
It is expected ti hit land again near the Mississippi-Louisiana line early this afternoon.
Low-lying New Orleans, “the most vulnerable city in the United States,” seemed to be the storm’s target area - complicating the job for forecasters, said Bob Burpee, National Hurricane Center director.
Many coastal residents scrambled for cover as the storm targeted the Gulf Coast from Apalachicola to Mississippi. More than 200 aircraft from military bases along the Florida Panhandle were flown inland, and 9,000 people in Louisiana were ordered to evacuate when the governor declared a state of emergency.
In southern Alabama, Red Cross shelters filled quickly.
“They’re coming in much quicker. In an hour’s time, we went from 100 people to 300 people,” said spokeswoman Michelle Wamble.Peter Winters, general manager of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, said guests would be alerted about the possibility of taking shelter from high winds and possible flooding.”We just hope the Mississippi River stays where it belongs,” he said.
Nervous residents along the Gulf Coast replayed a scene acted out earlier in the week along Florida’s eastern coast; gobbling up water, batteries, canned foods, candles and flashlights.
James Holt, the assistant manager of the Winn Dixie in Gulf Shores, Ala., said business finally waned near 8:30 p.m., because many residents had already evacuated.
“It was rocking and rolling earlier,” he said. “We got our storm shutters up, and we are waiting for the word to shut down and get out of here ourselves.”
On its path across central Florida, Erin uprooted trees, knocked down power lines and peeled back the roofs of buildings. But it lacked the fury of Andrew, which devastated south Dade County in 1992.
“This is not a hurricane. It’s a pussycat,” said Jim Godwin, a fisherman who lives along the Gulf Coast near Homosassa Springs.
Meanwhile, a 234-foot gambling ship sent out to sea to ride out Hurricane Erin sank Wednesday in the wind-whipped waters of the Atlantic. A survivor said he believed the captain and two other crew members went down with the ship.
“When it started listing, eight of them abandoned ship in the life rafts, and the other three stayed on board, and they never saw them after the boat sank,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Chris Rose.