Ivan gives Gulf Coast a drenching

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The Independent US

Hurricane Ivan slammed ashore today with winds of 130 mph, packing a powerful punch of waves and rain that threatened to swamp communities from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.

For the millions of Gulf Coast residents who were spending a frightening night in shelters and boarded-up homes, the worst could be yet to come: up to 15 inches of rain and a storm surge of up to 16 feet.

"Say a prayer, say a prayer, say a prayer, that I'll have some place to go when I leave here," evacuee Betty Sigler said in a shelter in the city of Mobile, safe from the howling wind and sheets of rain. "We'll see in the morning."

The storm weakened as it moved inland, with winds of 115 mph about two hours after it hit land.

Ivan knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people, toppled trees and sent street signs hurtling through the night. In Gulf Shores, where the storm's eye blew ashore, the sky had a bright green glow as electrical transformers blew.

"We have never seen a hurricane of this size come into Alabama," said Gov. Bob Riley, who earlier asked President George W. Bush to declare much of the state a disaster area, a request that was granted.

Two people were killed and more than 70 homes were damaged when at least five tornadoes roared through Florida's Bay County. "We have a report from a deputy that it looks like a war zone," Bay County sheriff's spokeswoman Ruth Sasser said.

Four ailing evacuees - a terminally ill cancer patient, two nursing home patients and a homebound patient - reportedly died after being taken from their storm-threatened south Louisiana homes to safer parts of the state.

Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, warned that the misery would spread as Ivan moves across the Southeast in the hours and days ahead. "I hate to think about what's going to happen inland," he said.

At 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT), Ivan was centered about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northwest of Pensacola, Florida, and was moving slightly east of north at 14 mph (22 kph).

A hurricane warning for New Orleans was lifted early Thursday, but one remained in effect from the mouth of the Pearl River to Apalachicola, Florida.

A hurricane warning was in effect from Grand Isle, Louisiana, including New Orleans, to Apalachicola, Florida. Hurricane-force winds extended out 105 miles (169 kilometers) from the Category 3 storm, which earlier killed at least 68 people across the Caribbean.

An 11th-hour shift spared New Orleans a direct hit, but Ivan's sheer size could create catastrophic flooding in the bowl-shaped city. Officials warned that the levees and pumping stations that normally hold back the water may not be enough to protect the city, which is nestled mostly below sea level.

At least 200,000 homes and businesses were without power in Alabama, 36,500 in Louisiana, 45,000 in Mississippi and 21,000 across northern Florida - a state still trying to restore power to more than 100,000 hit by Hurricanes Charley and Frances in recent weeks.

Ivan's waves - some up to 25 feet - destroyed homes along the Florida coast Wednesday. Twelve-foot waves boomed ashore at Gulf Shores, eroding the beach. A buoy about 300 miles south of Panama City registered one wave of 50 feet high.

David Bodenhamer, the mayor of the resort town of Gulf Shores, said streets were flooded and trees and power lines were down everywhere. His home and others along the beachfront road were OK, "But the beach is going to be a mess, a big mess," he said.

In Mobile, majestic oaks that line the streets swayed in gusting winds as the city of some 200,000 braced for a hurricane expected to be even more destructive than Frederic, which killed five people 25 years ago.

New Orleans scrambled to get people out of harm's way, putting the frail and elderly in the cavernous Louisiana Superdome and urging others to move to higher floors in tall buildings.

Of the roughly 2 million who fled the path of the storm, often in bumper-to-bumper caravans on highways turned into one-way evacuation routes, 1.2 million were from greater New Orleans.

Thousands of tourists were believed stranded in New Orleans, along with 100,000 mostly inner-city residents without cars. The mayor suggested that they take shelter in buildings taller than two stories.

As the storm drew near, streets along Mississippi's Gulf Coast were all but deserted, and miles of homes and businesses, including its 12 floating casinos, were boarded up. Only patrol cars and an occasional luggage-packed car or van could be seen passing Gulfport's "Welcome to the Gulf Coast" billboard.

"In the aftermath, I urge people to be patient, to be persistent in the restoration and rebuilding effort, and to be prayerful," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "We're not going to be back to normal tomorrow or next week. The damage is likely to be such that it will take many weeks to restore everything, much less rebuild."

Forecasters said hurricane-force winds could blast the coast for nearly 20 hours.

Still, some wouldn't budge. Marja Morgan said she planned to ride out Ivan at her home in Elberta, about 10 miles +inland from Gulf Shores. "That house has been there through Camille and Frederic," she said. "It'll be there through this."

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch for as far away as North Carolina, which suffered heavy flooding last week from the remnants of Hurricane Frances. The heavy rain also could trigger mud and rock slides.

More trouble lingered out in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Jeanne could become a hurricane in the Caribbean as moved westward across the north coast of Puerto Rico. It could be near Florida's east coast as early as the weekend.