Cruelly indecisive Hurricane Elena ended its destructive wandering early Monday and thundered into the Mississippi coast, its 125-m.p.h. winds smashing homes and businesses, sparking fires from downed electrical lines and sending surging tides across island communities.
After five days spent lurching about the Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane uprooted thousands of trees and centered its fury on a 35-mile stretch of coastline from Gulfport east to Pascagoula.
At least half the stores and homes in the oceanfront communities of Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs were damaged, officials said.
No Deaths Reported
But the storm proved not to be a killer, due largely to widespread evacuations. By late Monday, no deaths--and only minor injuries--had been reported. Earlier, the storm was held responsible for the death of at least one man in Florida, and officials there reported a smattering of injuries.
"We came out like champs on this one," said Richard Glaczier, spokesman for Harrison County Civil Defense in Biloxi.
But the material toll was massive. A 12-foot tidal surge ripped 50 homes and businesses off the west end of Dauphin Island. In Biloxi, a tornado spawned by the raging storm tore the roof from a senior citizens' shelter, forcing paramedics to crawl through the wreckage to rescue 200 persons.
Nearly 400 persons who had sought refuge in Gulfport's Central Elementary School were thrust out into the storm when a tornado smashed the school's roof. In another Biloxi shelter, one person was injured when a tornado smacked the center. Along the waterfront, Hurricane Elena punched the glass from hotel windows--even from the windows of the Broadwater Beach Hotel, which had been protectively covered with wood.
Shopping Centers Destroyed
In Gautier, between Pascagoula and Biloxi, two shopping centers housing a total of 12 stores were blown apart by tornadoes. "I have yet to see a structure in Gautier that doesn't have some sort of damage," said volunteer Fire Capt. Robert McLaurin. "We don't have the first business that can operate. We need food, water and gasoline."
The hurricane struck, like a mean, staggering giant, just before dawn and stamped a path through the coast. At 8 a.m. the calm eye moved over land, giving those holed up in homes or evacuation centers an hourlong respite before winds once again howled.
All across the coastal zone, trees flew through the air and crashed into houses, scattered fires were lit by downed electrical wires and sudden drops in air pressure blasted out windows. Live oak, pine and pecan trees littered almost every road, filling the air with the scent of freshly split wood.
Hurricane Frederic--called the most destructive hurricane in economic terms this century when it hit in 1979--and Hurricane Camille also struck this coast. Hurricane Frederic caused an estimated $2.3 billion in damage, while Hurricane Camille, in 1969, left 300 dead and hundreds missing in its wake.
Efforts to put a price tag on damage from Hurricane Elena were hampered late Monday by the closures of most roadways, strewn with debris and undermined by flooding. But on Dauphin Island alone, sheriff's deputies estimated damage at $30 million. Before the storm, the tiny resort was home to 1,400 vacation cottages.
In some areas, Hurricane Elena was initially considered more damaging than Hurricane Frederic or Hurricane Camille, indicating the economic toll could approach the billions.
"The damage here was more extensive than either Hurricane Camille or Hurricane Frederic," Civil Defense official Michael Hampton said in Biloxi. "On the average, four houses on every block in our city have major roof damage from fallen trees."
In Pascagoula, less than 40 miles to the west, a Red Cross volunteer worker described the terrain as "bombed out."
More than 600,000 people, residents and Labor Day tourists alike, fled the western Gulf Coast area Saturday when Hurricane Elena mounted increased strength and began barreling toward land. The storm had threatened the same area on Thursday and Friday, then moved east and for two days dallied off the central Florida coast, its powerful winds causing millions of dollars in damage. Florida officials estimated that more than 1,000 homes--most of them in trailer parks--were damaged or destroyed.
On Monday, Mississippi Gov. Bill Allain urged residents who fled the oncoming hurricane to stay away from home for several days "and do a lot of praying." Authorities were concerned that electrical power, cut to 240,000 homes, would not be restored for days.
As the hurricane reached inland and dissolved into a tropical storm, Allain asked the federal government to declare the 80-mile Mississippi coast a disaster area.
National Guard Mobilized
In Mississippi and Louisiana, National Guard troops were called out to aid in cleanup efforts and protect homes and businesses.
Five communities--Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula and Ocean Springs in Mississippi and Bogalusa, La.--set early evening curfews for all but rescue workers. Civilians there were told they face arrest if they leave home after dark. Looting was reported in Bay St. Louis, Miss., west of the storm's main destructive path.
"We will deal with them as strongly as we can under the law," vowed Bay St. Louis Mayor Victor Frankiewiczk.
While the loss of life was slight, many residents here still have reason to grieve.
Greg Hess watched as fire raged through Gulfport's Highland Square Apartments, where he and 100 other families lived. Winds that fanned the blaze also kept firemen at bay. The fire was blamed on a ruptured gas line.
"It was like you were standing in a wind tunnel with everything going wide open," he said. "Then it sounded like a stick of dynamite went off."
School Roof Ripped Off
Hess waited near the burning complex for evacuation buses to arrive. They eventually came, but Janie Johnson, another resident, decided instead to drive her car to a public shelter. Seconds after she walked into Central Elementary School, a tornado ripped off the roof.
"I got right in there, set my bag down and the tornado hit," Johnson said. "Then they told us to get against the wall and we prayed."
Nativity Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Cathedral is the oldest church in Biloxi. A tornado gouged two holes in its roof.
"There's a feeling of helplessness, nothing you can do," said Sister Annette Seymour.
Watched From Convent
She watched from the convent window as the statue of the Sacred Heart blew across the street along with a giant fir tree. Most of the stained glass in the 83-year-old building was protected with plywood. But the two curved windows of the apse were unsecured. Gusts smashed holes in "The Agony of the Garden" and "The Crucifixion."
"A tornado lifted both sides of the roof at the same time," said Phil Beining, the church administrator.
In Ocean Springs, homes and businesses collapsed under the force of tornadoes.
"A friend called and said: 'Your store is leaving you,' " said Earl Tinnon, 54, who owns Man's Best Friend Pet Shop there. "Then he said: 'Oops, the front just left.' "
Front Wall in Street
When Tinnon finally left home to inspect the damage, he found that the front wall had tumbled into the street. Bird seed and dog vitamins were spread amid the debris. His friend had entered the store to save Vern, the blue and gold macaw, and Fred, the cockatoo.
"He moved them back by the dogs," Tinnon said. "Vern was calm. He said the usual, you know: 'Hello. Come here. Hey, boy.' "
Biloxi's Saenger Theater for the Performing Arts, built in 1929 and once called "the gem of the Gulf Coast," lost its north wall to the storm. "Tonight's H.U.G. Fashion Show has been canceled," read a hastily written sign in the box office.
Statue in Three Pieces
The statue of Crooked Feather, a 25-foot-tall sculpture of a Mississippi Indian carved from a cypress log, had been one of the landmarks of Ocean Springs. Before Hurricane Elena, it marked the site of Ft. Maurepas, the first French colony on the Gulf Coast. The storm left it in three pieces, the feather that once topped the statue sprawled across an access road.
"This hurricane hit us dead on," said Ocean Springs Mayor Chester McPherson. "It did us more damage than Camille."
Ten trees around the mayor's home snapped in half. Three of them plunged through the roof of his home into the living room, dining room and kitchen.
"We took damage with Hurricane Frederic back in '79, so I figured it couldn't happen the same way twice," the mayor said, shaking his head. "My family stayed in the house till the trees hit, then they headed for a shelter."
A Ferocious Noise
Hank Girot, an Ocean Springs contractor, and his family live a half-block from the Gulf. They were stunned by the storm's ferocious noise.
"You hear a snap, snap, snap and a crunch, crunch, crunch," Girot said. "The house just shakes and you see the trees go down. It sounded like a bunch of freight trains coming through."
Hurricane Elena smashed holes into the roofs of many stores, and in a second slap, its trailing rains soaked merchandise inside.
"If the rain stops, we've got a chance," said Mike Kenney, owner of a Gulfport furniture store.
'Don't Ever Stay'
He piled already-ruined furniture under the holes, hoping to block the water. Hurricane Elena was Kenney's second hurricane. "Don't ever stay," he advised.
The teasing nature of Hurricane Elena made it difficult for Gulf Coast residents to determine when to leave. Residents in the Florida Panhandle and parts of Mississippi and Alabama were evacuated twice in three days as the hurricane paraded around the Gulf.
During the frantic, unpredictable five days, more than 1.5 million people were evacuated in four states. Then Hurricane Elena finally made up its mind.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry," a friend said to Earl Tinnon, the pet store owner.
"We'll build her back up," he answered.
"But Earl, it's so terrible," she said.
"It's life," he replied. And then he turned to pick his way through the debris.
Barry Bearak and J. Michael Kennedy reported from Mississippi and Louisiana. Contributing to this story was Cathleen Decker in Los Angeles.