Hurricane Opal, the second-costliest storm in Florida history, blew itself out Thursday, leaving 15 people dead in four states, 2 million others without electricity and at least 1,100 homes flattened or crumpled like tinfoil.
In addition to a 76-year-old woman killed when a hurricane-spawned tornado struck her Okaloosa County mobile home, authorities said seven people were killed in Georgia; six were killed in Alabama, including two who were crushed by a tree, and one was killed in North Carolina, a man also crushed by a tree.
Authorities estimated damage to insured property at $1.8 billion in Florida alone. Residents found their boats on their lawns, their furniture in the Gulf of Mexico and their swimming pools filled with seawater. Their streets were littered with glass, boards and shingles. Many had no drinking water or sewer service.
Opal lost its punch as it blew north-northeast at 29 m.p.h. The storm's sustained winds dropped to 35 m.p.h., and it was downgraded to a tropical depression. At nightfall, it was in Kentucky, dumping rain into the hollows of Appalachia and delaying air travel. Tourists fled the South and vowed never to come back in hurricane season.
Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles met with President Clinton's Cabinet officers to coordinate relief. Fifteen counties in the Panhandle were approved for federal aid. Opal was expected to be the most expensive storm since Hurricane Andrew, which holds the record for inflicting $17 billion in damage to property in South Florida in 1992.
Those without power were in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas. Nearly 4,500 police and National Guard troops were posted in Florida to prevent looting. Panama City Beach and surrounding Bay County, where an estimated 100 homes were destroyed and 1,000 damaged, were under a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Authorities put Panama City Beach under a lockout. State troopers barred entry to everyone, even residents. There was no telephone service, no electricity, no running water. The city, with its washed-out roads, tattered awnings and shredded signs, had the look of a ghost town.
Many residents, frustrated by the lockout, grew angry. Bay County announced that it would open several "comfort stations" to offer ice and drinking water along roads where the residents waited impatiently in their cars. But trucks bringing the water got tied up in traffic, and the stations stayed closed.
"The only reason [to keep people out] is to protect their lives," said David Miller, the county public safety director. "If they listened enough to leave, then they ought to listen when they're trying to come back. . . . There are dangling power lines, poles and debris."
Next door in Walton County, officials urged residents to stay away for at least another day. "Don't come home tonight," Mike Barker, a spokesman for the Walton County emergency operations center, warned in ominous tones on the local radio station.
"It is very dangerous to try and get in your homes."
As a further deterrent, Barker added that snakes, driven to high ground by the hurricane, were being discovered in unexpected places.
None of this kept people from trying to return anyway. Roads into both counties, jammed the day before by fleeing residents, were jammed again as those same people tried to head back home.
They fell in behind National Guard convoys, power company crews and semi-trailer trucks carrying food and water.
"We went to my dad's in Ft. Walton Beach, where the eye passed over," said Darlene Henslee, stopped at a roadblock just west of Panama City Beach. "We were real lucky."
With her were her husband, Ken, two daughters, a cocker spaniel, a rabbit and a parrot named Misty.
"We don't even know if our house is still there," Henslee added apprehensively.
"I'm starting to panic."
One of the few businesses trying to reopen in Panama City Beach was the Paradise Market, where owner Terry Stalvey was bagging 1,200 pounds of ice to sell before it melted.
"If we get power back, we could get open this weekend," he said. "Or at least have a party."
West of Panama City Beach, in an upscale community of 1,100 called Seaside, damage was minimal to tin-roofed, wooden homes designed in a distinctive Victorian style.
But storm surges had knocked down docks, swept away sugar-white sand dunes and left a 30-foot cliff in their place.
Seaside, too, looked deserted.
Richard McCullen, proprietor of the Dolphin Inn, counted his blessings. "A hurricane is a minor irritation," he said, "compared to the joys of living here."
To the northwest, in a cluster of small communities--Navarre, Ft. Walton Beach, Destin and Okaloosa Island--the storm had swallowed roads, tossed boats like corks, leveled beach dunes and filled hundreds of oceanfront cottages with several feet of debris-strewn saltwater.
Given the near-panic that Opal caused, however, the damage in these four towns seemed far less catastrophic than expected. Most of it was along the beachfront, known as "the Emerald Coast," where surging tides battered nearly everything.
In Ft. Walton Beach, three large sailboats were smack in the middle of U.S. Highway 98.
The Halcyon, an otherwise sturdy-looking skiff, was leaning against a palm tree along the grassy median. The Pair-A-Dice, a hulking 43-foot yacht, was blocking both lanes of eastbound traffic. The Tanasi had come ashore on the front lawn of St. Simons of the Sound, an Episcopal church, next to a sign that said, "Visitor Parking."
How did they get there?
"I have no idea," said Don Pattison, a church elder, shaking his head.
He was busy trying to salvage what he could from inside the soggy sanctuary, where nearly three feet of water sloshed through the chapel, lapping at the gold-and-wood altar.
With his son, he had rescued four felt-lined suitcases filled with $5,000 worth of brass chorus bells, now baking outside in the sunshine, alongside damp pew cushions that featured neatly embroidered conch shells, sand dollars and starfish.
"This just wiped us out," said Pattison, a 62-year-old mental health counselor. "I guess I'm gonna have to work tomorrow--on everyone, including myself."
East of Ft. Walton Beach, across a bridge to Okaloosa Island, a highway had buckled under the weight of floodwater. The roadway disappeared into a shimmering lagoon.
Other roads were caked with wet sand--all that was left of 10-foot dunes that had lined the beachfront.
"It was like a dam breaking," said Charles Chubb, 69, retired from the Air Force, who weathered the storm in a gray stucco cottage, along with his daughter, their cat and a dog.
Surging tides broke through their living room window and roiled through the house, toppling a refrigerator, hurling an air conditioner through a glass door and splashing muddy water up to the ceiling.
As the wind howled, they huddled in a bedroom with their animals, trying to keep floating debris from battering down the door.
"You couldn't go outside, you couldn't call for help," said Valerie Chubb, 31, a high school teacher, as she picked her way through the flotsam in their kitchen. "I don't think we ever dreamed it would be this bad."
Almost scarier than the storm was what it dragged in.
While surveying the damage, her father recoiled in terror at the sight of a three-foot serpent--until he realized it was a child's inflatable snake, apparently swept in from a neighbor's yard.
Like Okaloosa Island, neighboring Destin dangled precariously in Opal's path.
A resort community that had enjoyed an upscale boom in recent years, it was hammered by the storm, which stripped roofs, crumpled piers and capsized the Noah's Ark ride at the Surfin' Safari amusement park.
The Lucky Snapper, a landmark restaurant overlooking the ocean, lost its entire basement dining room, which collapsed into the pounding surf. "We've been lucky--up to now," said Mark Palmer, the Snapper's 33-year-old chef, who had traded in his frying pans for a hammer and fistful of nails.
Across a bay from Destin, in the town of Shalimar, 17-year-old Josh Reiker recounted a fortuitous rescue the night before, when he heard cries for help echoing across the choppy sea.
Armed with a flashlight, he finally found their source: About 100 yards off shore, a man was clinging to a wooden piling, fighting to stay above the crashing waves.
Apparently his car had been washed off the Destin bridge as the eye of the hurricane approached. For more than three hours, he bobbed atop debris, stripped down to his underwear and socks, before washing up near a dock behind Reiker's house.
"When the 911 guys finally pulled him out, this guy was totally calm," said Josh's mother, Nancy. "He came up to me and said, 'I'm sorry, lady, I don't have any pants on.' "
Although communal spirit seemed to be the rule as residents negotiated blacked-out traffic signals and hunted for scarce supplies, tempers flared here, too, when state troopers blocked evacuees from returning to their homes.
Along southbound state Highway 85, the main route to the Ft. Walton Beach area from Interstate 10, hundreds of motorists began queuing up before dawn, anxious to survey the damage.
Many were exhausted. Some had spent the night in a vain search for lodging. But authorities held them up until nearly midday, insisting that downed cables and washed-out roads continued to present a threat.
"We're going to hurt more people blocking this traffic up than that damn hurricane caused," shouted Rick Richey, 43, the owner of a welding shop in the village of Niceville. "This is America, buddy. It's a free country, supposedly, and I don't see a whole lot of freedom right now."
As a small crowd gathered around officers at the roadblock, David Seffens, 55, added: "This is bureaucrat's day. They're having a party. I don't like buying this kind of help. We can take care of ourselves without paying people to help us for nothing."
A few minutes later, authorities relented, allowing people to head back down the road that had carried them to safety the day before.
When Opal reached Georgia, it caused such damage that Gov. Zell Miller declared emergencies in 45 western and northern counties, including most of metropolitan Atlanta.
Georgia Power Co. crews worked around the clock to restore electricity to nearly 300,000 homes in the Atlanta area. Because of power failure at a water plant, officials ordered that all water be boiled in the Douglas City area west of Atlanta.
Opal carried heavy rain, knocked down trees and utility lines and made the death toll soar.
Five of those killed were in Atlanta. They included two motorists crushed when trees fell across their vehicles and three who lost their lives when trees crashed through their houses.
Firefighters worked for hours to free three people trapped when a giant oak fell into their home in southeastern Atlanta.
One of them, Betti Boddie, 63, a paraplegic, was asleep in an upstairs room. The tree knocked her through the floor into a downstairs room. When rescuers rolled her out of the house on a stretcher, she had her Bible clutched tightly in her hands.
Clary, a special correspondent, reported from Panama City Beach, and Katz, a Times staff writer, reported from Ft. Walton Beach. Staff writers Edith Stanley in Atlanta and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles also contributed to this story.