Hurricane Opal thrashed the Florida Panhandle with howling Hurricane Opal thrashed the Florida Panhandle with howling wind gusts up to 144 mph Wednesday, flooding homes, knocking down piers along the sugarwhite beaches and forcing more than 100,000 terrified people to flee inland. At least one person was killed.
Even in this year of record hurricane activity, Opal stood out as a large and violent storm, one of the worst to hit the area since Hurricane Camille killed 256 people in 1969.
“I think this one is going to clean our clock,” said Tom Beliech, who fled Pensacola. “Erin gave us a deep respect for knowing when to leave,” he said, referring to the hurricane that forced a similar exodus two months ago.
Opal’s storm center blew across the Air Force’s Hurlburt Field, 25 miles east of Pensacola, just after 6 p.m. EDT. East of Hurlburt, the National Hurricane Center recorded sustained winds of 125 mph and gusts up to 144 mph.
By 1 a.m. EDT, Opal had blown through and was about 25 miles north of Montgomery, Ala. Maximum sustained winds had dropped to about 75 mph. Forecasters dropped hurricane warnings for the Gulf Coast and said Opal would continue weakening, although they warned of continued high winds and heavy rains as the storm moved north about 23 mph.
At least 100,000 were evacuated from a 150-mile stretch of Florida’s Gulf coast, from Pensacola to Tallahassee, as the ninth hurricane of the Atlantic storm season closed in.
Opal, which left 10 people dead in Mexico, spun off at least seven tornadoes and caused flooding from storm surges of up to 15 feet.
The storm’s first U.S. victim was a 76-year-old woman whose mobile home in Okaloosa County was destroyed by a hurricane-spawned tornado.
Thousands who waited too long to evacuate were trapped in their homes. Those who did flee bottled up traffic on U.S. 29 - the main route north toward Alabama - and on eastbound Interstate 10, where traffic crawled at 5 mph.
An estimated 15,000 people sought refuge in 42 emergency shelters. Several shelters in Escambia County reported food shortages, and one shelter designed to hold 500 people was filled with more than 900.
Justice Stroud and his family found themselves trapped on Panama City Beach, a barrier island, because the roads were too crowded to leave.
“The electricity is out and we’re losing some of the shingles off the house,” he said. “We can see a structure burning down on the beach.”
In Mexico Beach, a small town 25 miles east of Panama City, there were reports that 12 houses washed into the Gulf of Mexico, said City Council member Eadie Stewart.
“They don’t really expect there to be much left,” Stewart said, fighting back tears.
U.S. 98, a scenic coastline highway, was flooded with water and debris from smashed houses, she said.
“There are rooftops passing over 98 riding the waves,” Stewart said, “going from one side to the other.”
In Panama City Beach, the end of the city’s new 1,500-foot concrete pier crumbled into the Gulf. Waves crashed over the bathhouses on top of the pier, which is normally 15 to 20 feet above water.
At least 100 homes in Bay County were destroyed and another 100 sustained major damage, said David Miller, director of the county Emergency Management Agency. Panama City’s marina was destroyed, and Miller expected major damage to boats.
In Florarosa, a 100-foot abandoned water tower toppled over, hitting a water main and leaving eight blocks of homes without water.
“I’ve been through a couple of hurricanes, but this one is really bad,” said Horace Crowson of Panama City Beach.
In Destin, west of Panama City, there were reports of cars floating down the streets, boats piled atop each other and damaged buildings. The storm ripped the roof off a high school gymnasium.
Opal knocked out electricity to about 357,000 people, or half of Gulf Power’s customers, said company spokesman Steve Higginbottom. He said it might take up to a month to restore electricity to remote areas.
Another 130,000 customers lost electricity in Alabama, mostly in the Mobile area. Alabama Power Co. officials didn’t immediately know when it would be restored.
Many residents in Pensacola still hadn’t finished repairing homes and businesses battered in early August by Hurricane Erin’s 94 mph winds.
In Pensacola Beach, Don Wheeler took one last look at his home, which sustained $30,000 in damage from Erin, before fleeing for Hattiesburg, Miss.
“Supposedly this one is going to make the other one look like a sissy,” he said. “I’m afraid … we’re going to have an awful lot of damage. We’ll just come back and rebuild.”
State emergency officials mobilized 700 police officers and 3,500 National Guardsmen to prevent looting and help with the cleanup.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent in relief teams and was planning to fly in water and other supplies.
President Clinton signed an emergency declaration clearing the way for federal help with cleanup and rebuilding in Florida and Alabama.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to all whose lives have been disrupted by the devastation,” Clinton said in a statement.
“I will do all I can to ensure you get the federal support you need for successful recovery efforts.”
Many state officials and Panhandle residents compared Opal’s power to Hurricane Camille, which hit the Gulf Coast in 1969 with sustained winds of 200 mph, killing 256 people in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
The last Category 4 hurricane to hit Florida was Andrew, which laid waste to a swath of South Florida in 1992, killing 55 people in Florida and elsewhere.
In Metairie, La., a hurricane gust whipped a sheriff’s deputy into the air and slammed him to the ground as he and other deputies tried to take down a 50-by-20 foot American flag in front of a shopping center. The deputy was hospitalized with internal injuries and several broken bones.
In southern Alabama, two tornadoes touched down in Luverne and Petrey, demolishing two homes but causing no injuries.
At Cape Canaveral on Florida’s East Coast, NASA postponed today’s launch of the space shuttle Columbia for a day because of Opal.
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