MOBILE, Ala. – Hurricane Ivan and its 135-mph winds began its assault on this historic port city with frightening intensity Wednesday, lashing the Gulf Coast region with heavy rain and ferocious winds, spawning monster waves that toppled beach houses and spinning off deadly tornadoes.
The storm was expected to make landfall early today between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and could swamp the coastline with a 16-foot storm surge and up to 15 inches of rain.
Ivan offered a daylong preview of its destruction as it took aim at the coast: Sheets of rain across the region, a series of tornadoes and escalating winds that knocked out electricity to tens of thousands and made oak trees whipsaw.
“We have never seen a hurricane of this size come into Alabama,” said Gov. Bob Riley, who earlier asked President Bush to declare much of the state a disaster area.
An 11th-hour shift turned Ivan away from New Orleans, but the sheer size of the storm could create catastrophic flooding in the bowl-shaped city. Officials warned that the levees and pumping stations that normally hold back the water may not be enough to protect the below-sea-level city.
In the Florida Panhandle near Panama City, tornadoes produced by the storm killed two people and damaged more than 70 homes. Rescuers dug through rubble Wednesday night but found no one trapped underneath.
“We have a report from a deputy that it looks like a war zone,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Ruth Sasser.
Hurricane-force winds extended out 105 miles from the Category 4 storm, threatening widespread damage no matter where it strikes. After reaching land, Ivan threatened to stall over the Southeast and southern Appalachians, with a potential for as much as 20 inches of rain.
At 11 p.m. PDT, Ivan was centered about 55 miles south of the Alabama coast, and was moving north at 12 mph. The storm, which plowed through the Caribbean, has now killed at least 70 people in all.
Ivan’s waves – some up to 25 feet – were already destroying homes along the Florida coast Wednesday. Twelve-foot waves boomed ashore at Gulf Shores, Ala., eroding the beach. A buoy about 300 miles south of Panama City registered waves over 34 feet high.
In Mobile, majestic oaks that line the streets swayed in gusting winds as the city of some 200,000 braced for a hurricane expected to be even more destructive than Frederic, which killed five people 25 years ago.
At least 11,000 people crowded into 95 shelters across Alabama, and thousands more went to homes of relatives and friends.
Betty Sigler, a 57-year-old substitute teacher, evacuated her home in Mobile and found shelter in a high school cafeteria. “Say a prayer, say a prayer, say a prayer that I’ll have some place to go when I leave here,” she said. “We’ll see in the morning.”
One potential target of Ivan is the tiny town of Hurricane, Ala., where the storm surge could be the highest.
Mobile bar owner Lori Hunter said her business would remain closed “until the landlord takes the boards down off the windows.”
“We’re staying,” she said. “I’m from New York. This is my first one. Terrorists scare me but not a hurricane.”
As the storm drew near, streets along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast were all but deserted, and miles of homes and businesses, including its 12 floating casinos, were boarded up. Only patrol cars and an occasional luggage-packed car or van could be seen passing Gulfport’s “Welcome to the Gulf Coast” billboard.
New Orleans scrambled to get people out of harm’s way, putting the frail and elderly in the cavernous Louisiana Superdome and urging others to move to higher floors in tall buildings.
“If we turn up dead tomorrow, it’s my fault,” said Jane Allinder, who stayed stubbornly behind at her daughter’s French Quarter doll shop to keep an eye on her cat.
Police began clearing people off the streets, enforcing a 2 p.m. curfew.
“I think it’s safe to say we will have flooding in this city,” said Mayor Ray Nagin. However, he contradicted a statement from his emergency preparedness director that the city needed at least 10,000 body bags to handle possible drowning victims.
Of the roughly 2 million who fled the path of the storm, often in bumper-to-bumper caravans on highways turned into one-way evacuation routes, 1.2 million were from greater New Orleans.
Four ailing evacuees, including a cancer patient and an 80-year-old nursing home resident, died after they evacuated and were caught in hours-long traffic jams.
Thousands of tourists were believed stranded in New Orleans, along with 100,000 mostly inner-city residents without cars. The mayor advised them to resort to “vertical evacuations,” suggesting they take shelter in buildings taller than two stories. If that is not possible, he said, they should go into an attic and take equipment with them that would allow them to cut through the roof and get out.
Rick Pfeifer, a salesman from Washougal, Wash., was stuck in New Orleans with no flights out and no cars to rent after arriving earlier this week for a National Safety Congress convention. His storm rations included as many chips, pretzels and bottled water as he could buy.
“I’m going to ride it out in the high-ground area of the city,” he said wryly. “Fourth floor in a good hotel, with a good bar.”
Frail, elderly and sick residents unable to get out were moved to the 72,000-seat Louisiana Superdome, where 200 cots in upper-deck concourses supplanted the dome’s usual tenant, the New Orleans Saints.
LuLinda Williams wept after dropping off her bedridden grandmother, who is on oxygen, at the Superdome. Only one family member was allowed to stay with each patient, so Williams left her daughter.
“I thought they’d let the family stay with them,” Williams said. “Where are the rest of us supposed to go now? How are we supposed to know she’s OK?”
Nagin later said the dome would also be opened as a one-night last resort for able-bodied storm refugees. The last time that happened during Hurricane Georges in 1998, the 14,000 refugees nearly did more damage than the storm itself. Countless televisions, seat cushions and bar stools were stolen, and workers spent months cleaning graffiti off the walls.
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