Americans flee the coast as Ivan closes in

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The Independent US

Hundreds of thousands were fleeing America's Gulf Coast as Hurricane Ivan's 135mph winds sped towards land yesterday. The cate-gory four storm is expected to strike land early today.

Hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing America's Gulf coast last night as Hurricane Ivan approached with winds of up to 135mph. It was due to hit land early today.

The coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida were pummelled with huge waves as the category four storm, in the five-step scale of hurricane intensity, roared towards land. Mike Dow, the Mayor of Mobile, Alabama, said: "This is a bad one and people need to get out."

Hurricane warnings were in force from Grand Isle, Louisiana, across coastal Mississippi and Alabama and to Apalachicola, Florida. Experts tracking Ivan said the storm had weakened very slightly but that it remained an "extremely dangerous" hurricane.

It seemed last night that the biggest danger ­ of the hurricane striking the particularly vulnerable city of New Orleans ­ had been avoided. It sits between the Mississippi river and the vast Lake Pontchartrain and relies on a system of levees, canals and huge pumps to keep it dry.

But the Mayor, Ray Nagin, warned that even though Ivan appeared to be heading east of the city hurricane-force winds still could strike the region. "We're not quite out of the woods," he said.

New Orleans opened the Louisiana Superdome to people with medical problems which prevented them from leaving. All bridges out of the city were ordered shut because of the threat of high wind, and Police Chief Eddie Compass imposed a 24-hour curfew as of 2pm.

Yesterday in New Orleans' famous French Quarter, many people were going about their business as normal with a fatalistic perspective on events. "I ain't going nowhere cause I ain't scared," Charles Smith, told reporters, as he drank a beer at the Double Play bar.

Meanwhile Tropical Storm Jeanne was threatening to turn into a hurricane as it passed over Puerto Rico. Long-range forecasts showed it could be near Florida's east coast as early as the weekend.

The effects from Ivan could be seen across the Gulf coast several hours before the storm's expected arrival: The churning surf, ominous clouds, swaying traffic lights and escalating winds were all the reminders some people needed to take cover. The storm also claimed its first deaths in the US, spinning off tornadoes that killed two people in Florida. Others were trapped inside their damaged homes. "We have a report from a deputy that it looks like a war zone," said a sheriff's spokeswoman.

Hurricane-force winds extended out 105 miles from the storm, meaning a large swath of the Gulf coast could get slammed with a storm surge of 10 to 16 feet and up to 15 inches of rain. After reaching land, Ivan threatened to stall over the south-east and southern Appalachians, with a potential for as much as 20 inches of rain.

Huge waves ­ some up to 25 feet ­ were already destroying homes along the Florida coast yesterday. Twelve-foot waves boomed ashore at Gulf Shores, Alabama, eroding the beach. A buoy about 300 miles south of Panama City registered waves of more than 34 feet high.