Hurricane Gains Strength, Heads for West Gulf Coast

Times Staff Writers

Hurricane Elena whirled away from central Florida and careened northward toward the heavily populated western Gulf Coast Sunday, its leading edge slamming beachfront towns and trapping residents who waited too long to evacuate.

Nearly half a million residents of the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi and the southern Louisiana lowlands fled--most for the second time in three days. After the storm shifted slightly to the west late Sunday, New Orleans residents were warned to be ready to leave on short notice.

As its winds escalated to 125 m.p.h., hurricane warnings were issued for 500 miles of shorefront from Grand Isle, La., west of New Orleans, to Yankeetown, Fla., below the Panhandle.

Hundreds of thousands of residents who fled the low-lying Florida central coast Saturday remained in emergency centers as officials, fearing that the storm might shift back yet again, delayed lifting some mandatory evacuation orders. But thousands of Tampa-area residents were allowed to return to their homes late Sunday.


Florida Gov. Bob Graham ordered 1,200 National Guardsmen to enforce evacuation orders and put another 3,000 guardsmen on alert, should they be needed to control anxious residents or looters.

As the hurricane steadily advanced late Sunday, its rakish winds smashed coastal towns from Apalachicola, Fla., westward. Roofs were ripped from homes and flung across neighborhoods, traffic signs skimmed like Frisbees through the air and power shortages hit chunks of the coastline.

From southern Florida west around the Gulf Coast arc, rain pummeled virtually abandoned towns and cities, turning roadways into violent creeks, and floodwaters up to six feet deep were reported in several areas. Tornadoes that spun off from the 350-mile-wide main system had destroyed more than 150 residences, most of them in Florida trailer parks.

The hurricane’s turn toward the western Gulf Coast and New Orleans marked a retracing of its earlier path. On Thursday and Friday, the 350-mile-wide storm appeared headed for Alabama, Mississippi and the Panhandle, but on Friday abruptly veered eastward to Florida’s central Gulf Coast. Slowly, it marched to within 50 miles of land--then stopped.

The hurricane dawdled off the central coast for 24 hours until early Sunday, when it suddenly pulled back into the Gulf of Mexico. Its winds rose quickly from 100 m.p.h. to 125 m.p.h., and the storm barreled to the northwest, heading for land.

National Hurricane Center forecasters said the rapid change pushed the storm into a “strong . . . Category 3" hurricane, one of major proportions almost certain to cause more deaths or injury. Hurricanes are graded on a scale of one to five.

‘Continuing to Intensify’

“It’s moving right along on a track that would bring it in very near New Orleans around midday tomorrow (Monday),” National Hurricane Center forecaster Mark Zimmer said. The storm was about 225 miles east-southeast of New Orleans around midnight. But forecasters added that a slight change of direction could bring the storm ashore anywhere along a massive swath of land from Pensacola, Fla., to the Louisiana bayous.


“The significant thing is that Elena is continuing to intensify,” Zimmer said.

“Whatever they’re going to do, they better be doing it now. People should be on their way out now. If the center reaches the coast and they hadn’t evacuated, they will be in big trouble,” Zimmer said.

A statement released by the center said tides could reach 12 feet above normal, cutting off escape routes.

For some areas, the warning came too late. Apalachicola and other Panhandle towns were slammed by 95-m.p.h. winds by early evening. In Apalachicola, two airline hangars collapsed and aircraft were destroyed as the storm hit.


‘Blowing Trees Down’

“It’s too late to leave. It’s blowing trees down. Tree trunks are blowing by all around my house,” Nick Mosconis, 75, said by telephone from his Apalachicola house. Then the line went dead.

Nearby, Port St. Joe police officer Bill Eagle said his neighbor had called to report that Eagle’s roof and pump house had flown by. “Windows are busting out. Trees are popping right out of the ground,” he said. “It’s sucked the water right out of our bay, and when it comes back in, we may have a tidal wave.”

In Panama City Beach to the west, officials reported that the island town--swollen to 40,000 residents, twice its normal size, by Labor Day festivities--was 90% evacuated. Only two problems arose: A local bridge tender raised the Highway 79 drawbridge to allow two pleasure boats through, stymying the escape efforts of residents whose cars then backed up along the only route out.


‘I’d Handcuff Her’

“I had an officer tell her that, if she let the bridge up one more time, I’d handcuff her to the wall,” Panama City Beach Police Chief Lee Sullivan said.

Some residents also tried to drink their way through the storm, prompting officials to close all bars at 5:30 p.m. Overall, the evacuation proceeded smoothly.

“They have seen all those other folks evacuated around the state. If a lot of people are sharing the burden, people are more apt to behave right,” Sullivan said.


In Pensacola, Florida’s westernmost city, police officers went door to door throughout the night, rousting residents unaware of the evacuation. Thousands of persons jammed onto the Pensacola Bay Bridge and made a safe, if slow, retreat.

Overall, officials said 250,000 Florida Panhandle residents and 175,000 coastal Alabama residents headed inland Sunday afternoon and evening. Another 50,000 fled Mississippi’s coastal counties, and 20,000 left the Louisiana marshlands as the storm’s path moved increasingly west.

Most of the residents of Florida Panhandle and coastal Alabama fleeing Sunday had returned to their homes only the day before. They also had been ordered to leave Thursday and Friday, when the storm aimed in their direction before taking its two-day side trip toward Florida’s central coast.

Signs Left Behind


In making their second escape, residents left behind signs erected only hours before. “Hurricane Elena, what a tease,” one read.

Across Florida, three persons died of heart attacks during the evacuation efforts; one was staying at a Tampa emergency center when he died. The fifth named storm of the season was directly blamed for one death Saturday, that of a man killed in Daytona Beach when a tree limb smashed into his car. In another Tampa shelter Sunday, a baby was born to an evacuee.

The storm’s shift toward New Orleans eased the threat to south-central Florida, prompting officials to discontinue hurricane warnings to more than 100 miles of coast south of St. Petersburg. But even the less-threatened areas were still subject to gale-force winds, flooding and tornadoes, officials said.

The shift lured many Floridians still in mandatory evacuation areas out of their temporary shelters toward home, a move that authorities considered premature given the storm’s frequent directional changes. State officials pleaded with residents to stay inland, but shelter officials reported that they were losing evacuees quickly.


Rising Floodwaters

Those returning home joined the vigil kept by some who had voluntarily refused evacuation or found themselves trapped by rising floodwaters.

Lynn Philmon, a 55-year-old crabber from Steinhatchee, was allowed to stay with his home and 28-foot boat only after the local sheriff gave permission.

“We live on the water, and we make our living paying attention to the weather,” Philmon said. “It bothers me when the governor sends someone with a badge to tell me I have to leave.”


Despite the defections, more than 200,000 Floridians remained in emergency centers, and hundreds of thousands more were holed up inland in hotels and private homes. Hotels were reported booked solid as far away as northern Georgia.

Might Lift Orders

Late Sunday, state officials lifted the mandatory evacuation orders for the Tampa area, a move that could free hundreds of thousands of persons to go home. But some local officials said they would keep residents outside the flooded coastal areas until power is restored and tons of sand are shoveled from streets.

Held captive in churches, school buildings, government offices and other high-ground facilities, evacuees battled cabin fever, tired of the storm’s ceaseless teasing.


“I wish it would hit and get it over with it,” said Roy Blinstrup, 65, a commercial fisherman from Steinhatchee in north-central Florida. “The suspense, the waiting for it, that’s the worst of it.”

The toll was particularly traumatic for the elderly, who make up a large percentage of those displaced by the hurricane’s fury. Geraldine Palchanis, 82, stayed in a Clearwater evacuation center for the second day Sunday, “scared to death” that her home of 20 years had fallen victim to the storm.

‘I Just Hit Bottom’

She sat in a chair in a surplus government building, wrapped in a blue jacket given her by an emergency worker. With pins in both her hips, she found it impossible to sleep on the hardwood floor, so she stayed awake. Saturday night, it got to be too much--and she fell ill.


“I didn’t have anything to eat, no rest, and I just hit bottom,” she said. So Sunday morning, another evacuee gave her an air mattress on which to sleep. Two others waded out into the storm and bought her breakfast. When they returned, Geraldine Palchanis burst into tears.

Barry Bearak reported from the Florida Panhandle and J. Michael Kennedy from central Florida and New Orleans. Contributing to this story was Cathleen Decker in Los Angeles.