Destruction and blackouts as Hurricane Ivan finally hits Florida

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The Independent US

Shrieking winds, drenching rains and repeated tornadoes ravaged a huge swath of the south-eastern United States as the long-feared Hurricane Ivan finally lunged ashore from the Gulf of Mexico in the early hours of yesterday, shredding buildings and trees and killing at least eight people.

Shrieking winds, drenching rains and repeated tornadoes ravaged a huge swath of the south-eastern United States as the long-feared Hurricane Ivan finally lunged ashore from the Gulf of Mexico in the early hours of yesterday, shredding buildings and trees and killing at least eight people.

But even as coastal residents in an area stretching all the way from Louisiana in the west and the Florida panhandle in the east struggled to endure the tempest and widespread power blackouts, there was a measure of relief that Ivan did not appear to have packed quite the terrible punch that some had predicted.

As the eye came ashore just to the east of Mobile, Alabama, at about 2am local time yesterday, the wind speeds tempered significantly, dropping from about 135mph at landfall to 80mph shortly afterwards. After dawn, it continued to track inland through Alabama slowly and had been downgraded to a category one storm.

The Florida panhandle felt the worst fury of Ivan as winds ripped at trees and homes. Part of Interstate 10, the main artery running east to west through the panhandle was closed after a bridge was destroyed by the storm. "You want to see the natural hand of God first-hand but you don't realise how strong it is," said Kevin Harless, 32, who was sightseeing in Panama City Beach, Florida, as the tornadoes began.

Relief, even celebration, was the feeling in New Orleans, which had been braced for calamity. In the event, the city, which mostly lies below sea level, suffered only light rain and high gusts as Ivan shifted more to the east. About 1.2 million people, who had fled New Orleans ahead of Ivan, were returning home yesterday after the hurricane warning was lifted.

Even in Mobile, Alabama, officials were thankful that the worst had been avoided. "Ivan was nowhere near as bad as Frederic - not even close," Sam Cochran, the police chief at Mobile said, referring to the 1979 storm that devastated the Alabama coast. "I think we were really spared and blessed."

Those who chose not to evacuate Mobile were thanking their blessings. "We were wondering at first if we made the right choice or not," said Marc Oliver, 38, who rode out Ivan with his family in Mobile. "We had some trees down in our yard and roofing damage, other than that, we came out pretty good."

The full extent of the damage was still being assessed last night, but insurance companies were preparing to receive claims totalling as much as $10bn (£5.5bn). The area of damage was expected to widen as Ivan headed north towards Georgia. "I hate to think what is going to happen inland," commented Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami.

At least eight people died in north-west Florida when tornadoes damaged or destroyed up to 70 buildings, including a fire station, police said. Five were killed when a twister struck a mobile home near Blountstown in Calhoun County and an eight-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her home in Milton, local officials said. In Pensacola, Florida's leading deep-water port, three hospitals were damaged as well as the Pensacola Civic Centre. Roofs were ripped from homes and hotels, and a bridge over Escambia Bay was cut in two.

Flooding remained a serious concern from a storm surge from a gulf that topped 16 feet with huge waves riding on top, as well as from torrential of rain that was expected to fall over a huge inland area for several hours as the progress of Ivan slowed. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people in Alabama and Florida were without power yesterday.

No one wanted to hear it, but another hurricane, Jeanne, was tracked westwards through the Caribbean last night, just north of Puerto Rico and was expected to strike the United States mainland, probably somewhere on Florida's east coast, late this weekend.

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