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Storm Sweeps Gulf, Slams Florida Panhandle : Weather: Hurricane is blamed for the sinking of 2 ships. Ship’s owner, 2 others aboard casino vessel are missing.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hurricane Erin ripped across the midsection of Florida with punishing 85-m.p.h. winds, weakened into a tropical storm as it spun past Tampa, then regained hurricane force over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, prompting a storm warning from the Suwanee River to the mouth of the Mississippi.

Although a small hurricane, Erin proved to be capricious and dangerous in its track. The storm was blamed for the sinking of two ships, including a 234-foot gambling vessel sent to sea out of Port Canaveral to ride out the blow. U.S. Coast Guard helicopters pulled seven crew members off life rafts early Wednesday, one other person was rescued by a passing ship, but three others, including the captain of the Club Royale and the ship’s owner, were missing.

“The more time passes, the worse it looks,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Carr.

The other boat to sink was a 115-foot tugboat which foundered in 15-foot seas 70 miles east of Brunswick, Ga.

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Erin crossed the state in about 10 hours and was over the Gulf of Mexico, centered about 55 miles south of Apalachicola, at 11 p.m. It was moving to the west-northwest at about 15 m.p.h. with steady winds of 75 m.p.h., regaining its hurricane status. Wind gusts above 70 m.p.h. and heavy rains were already being felt in Apalachicola on Florida’s Panhandle. Storm warnings were posted for the coasts of Alabama and Mississippi.

In Mobile, Ala., a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department said no extraordinary preparations were being made. But officials at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Fla., had dispersed most of their 80 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets to a number of bases beyond the storm’s path. And Cpl. Stephen Pearce of the Gulf Shores, Ala., Police Department said his town has taken on a “carnival atmosphere,” with people scrambling to gather provisions and make preparations for the storm.

Meanwhile, tornadoes and vicious thunderstorms spinning miles from Erin’s vortex continued to pound Central Florida.

In Titusville, a tornado blew out several windows, knocked down signs and injured an employee at the Miracle City Mall on Wednesday afternoon. The mall was immediately evacuated and closed.

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“It surprised us,” said mall administrator Sylvia Krajna. “We thought the worst was over.”

Although not a wanton killer on land, Erin inflicted millions of dollars of damage to property, knocked out power to an estimated 1 million customers and, during its three-day reign as the season’s fifth tropical storm, forced tens of thousands of Floridians from their homes.

In a state already saturated with above-average rainfall, the storm caused widespread flooding. It dumped 10 inches of water on Titusville. Many roads remained closed late Wednesday, clogged with stalled cars and knee-high water.

Erin’s eye pushed in from the Atlantic Ocean about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, making landfall near Vero Beach, the spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“We were geared up for the worst storm in 100 years,” said city planning director Dennis Ragsdale. “We’ve got some coastal erosion. But we were spared extensive damage, and for that we’re happy.”

Nonetheless, the powerful winds, gusting up to 100 m.p.h., made for a long night for tens of thousands. Roofs rattled, trees were uprooted or snapped off mid-trunk and, statewide, some 14,000 people spent the night in emergency shelters opened in schools, churches and, in Orlando, hotel ballrooms.

Disney World in Orlando opened two hours late Wednesday so that tree limbs and other debris could be picked up.

At the Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle Endeavour was rolled off the launch pad and stowed in a 52-story assembly building. At nearby Patrick Air Force Base, cargo planes, helicopters and other aircraft were tied down in hangars or flown to other bases outside Florida.

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The effects of the hurricane lasted through the night and well into the daylight hours Wednesday, thanks to a huge area of bad weather trailing the tropical cyclone. Through the afternoon tornado warnings were posted for much of Central Florida even as storm flags were hoisted along the Gulf Coast from Apalachicola Bay to Mississippi.

In Miami and South Florida, spared of all but a few showers when Erin veered to the north, life resumed a normal pace Wednesday.

But in dozens of towns and cities north of Lake Okeechobee, the storm disrupted commerce, travel and any sense of normalcy.

Just south of Cape Canaveral, up to 200,000 people lost power, and the winds caused widespread structural damage to buildings, uprooted trees and flooded streets.

But no fatalities were reported ashore. “Actually, it appears that everyone responded well to evacuation requests,” said Bill Farmer, a spokesman for the Brevard County emergency management office. “They did the right thing and got out to shelters and the houses of friends inland.”

More than 7,500 of the 400,000 people who were ordered to evacuate barrier islands in Dade County were housed in American Red Cross shelters, according to emergency services director Luis Garcia.

Researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.


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