Less than nine months after Hurricane Ivan ripped through the Florida Panhandle and Gulf Coast, Tropical Storm Arlene pummeled the same stretch of low lying shoreline Saturday, bringing 60 mph winds, drenching rains and the threat of tornadoes.
Thousands had scurried for supplies and hunkered down for another battering. Mindful that the storm was roughly on the same track as Ivan, which was blamed for 92 deaths directly and more than $13 billion in property damage in September, some residents were very worried, said Sonya Smith, a spokeswoman for Escambia County, Fla.
“They’re going, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’ ” Smith said. “The anxiety level is very high.”
Arlene’s winds eased slightly before it made landfall Saturday afternoon on the Florida-Alabama border, and it did not reach hurricane strength, meteorologists said. But the first named weather event of the six-month Atlantic tropical storm season disrupted travel and commerce along a 125-mile stretch of the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Louisiana.
All Mobile Regional Airport flights were canceled from dawn until further notice. Air traffic at Pensacola Airport was also temporarily halted. Bus service was stopped, and malls, clinics and businesses closed for the day. In the Pensacola area, more than 7,100 customers were reportedly without electricity Saturday afternoon.
As Arlene chugged north through the gulf at about 14 mph, officials in three Panhandle counties were urging residents of barrier islands and other low-lying areas to leave. Diane Hawkins, senior director for public support of the American Red Cross of Northwest Florida, said seven shelters opened, but that demand was light. Friday night, she said, they housed only 188 people.
Forecasters said as much as 8 inches of rainfall was possible in areas of the Gulf Coast, and that Arlene’s rain bands stretched from Mississippi to the Carolinas by midafternoon Saturday. Tornadoes were possible in the Panhandle, southern Alabama and southwestern Georgia, forecasters said.
“Our message has been to state residents: Stay inside and read a book,” said Mike Stone, public information officer for the Florida Division of Emergency Management in Tallahassee. “Stay out of the water, and don’t drive through it.”
In western Florida and Alabama, authorities were concerned that the aftermath of last year’s devastating hurricane season might pose additional dangers. Near Gulf Shores, Ala., where Ivan, packing 120 mph winds, made landfall Sept. 16, incomplete rebuilding efforts could pose a special threat.
“A number of houses and businesses are being constructed, and have the normal debris around the construction site,” said Pete McGough, spokesman for the Baldwin County, Ala., Emergency Management Agency. “We’re most concerned about debris that could become airborne -- roofing shingles, plywood, PVC pipe and the like -- and hurt people.”
County commissioners had asked coastal residents to leave Friday, McGough said.
In Pensacola and the rest of Escambia County, 10,000 roofs damaged or destroyed by Ivan were still in need of repair and could be further damaged by Arlene’s winds and rain, Smith said. The inhabitants of 4,600 homes leveled by Ivan, one of four hurricanes to hit Florida last year, were living in mobile homes or other temporary housing that might prove unreliable in a severe storm. There were also large piles of wreckage from demolished homes that hadn’t been cleared.
“Those elements make us very vulnerable,” Smith said.
Coastal storm surge flooding of 3 to 5 feet above normal levels was forecast from Arlene, along with dangerous, battering waves at the point of landfall and to the east.
On Friday night, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued the five crew members of a fishing trawler taking on water south of Cape San Blas, Fla., said Petty Officer Robert M. Reed, a Coast Guard spokesman in New Orleans.
“We’d like to remind Gulf mariners to stay off the water until Tropical Storm Arlene is past,” Reed said.
A hurricane warning was declared along a stretch of the Gulf Coast from Pascagoula, Miss., to Destin, Fla. But Saturday afternoon, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Arlene, which once possessed sustained winds of 70 mph, was losing its potential to reach hurricane force. A hurricane has winds of at least 74 mph.
According to initial calculations by the hurricane center, Arlene made landfall about 3 p.m. EDT on Saturday, 25 miles east of where Ivan came ashore. Winds from the southwest helped prevent Arlene from reaching hurricane status by keeping its 30-mile-wide center from becoming more compact, said Martin Nelson, a lead forecaster for the National Hurricane Center.
“Every once in a while, we get lucky,” Nelson said.
Roy Williams, front desk manager at the Best Western Resort in Pensacola Beach, Fla., said he and the rest of the staff had evacuated Friday, but had looked at the weather report Saturday morning and had decided to return and reopen the 123-room facility. They lashed down pool furniture, luggage carts and anything else that might be blown around, he said. Then they waited.
“In a storm this size, I feel pretty secure out here,” Williams said two hours before Arlene made landfall. “We’re respecting it, but we’re not running from it.”
Williams reported from Mobile, and Dahlburg from Miami.