Pensacola, Florida - Hurricane Opal thrashed northern Florida with gusts up to 144mph yesterday, flooding homes, knocking down piers and sending tens of thousands of terrified people on to jammed highways. At least one person was killed.
The storm centre came ashore east of Pensacola just after midnight British time. With sustained winds of 125mph, Opal was one of the strongest storms to hit the Gulf coast since Hurricane Camille killed 256 people in 1969.
"I think this one is going to clean our clock," said one resident, Tom Beliech, as he fled Pensacola. More than 55,000 people were evacuated from the Pensacola area on Florida's Gulf Coast as the ninth hurricane of the Atlantic storm season closed in.
"We're preparing for the very worst, extreme to catastrophic" damage, said state meteorologist Mike Rucker. "Within the eye wall, we're expecting total destruction of some homes and structures along the coast."
Opal, which left 10 people dead in Mexico, was expected to spin off tornadoes and cause flooding from storm surges of up to 15ft. The first US victim was a 76-year-old woman whose mobile home was destroyed.
Thousands who waited too long to evacuate were trapped in their homes, while those who did flee were caught in huge jams traffic crawled at 5mph. "People are turning around and going back home," said Tom Roche, emergency management director for Santa Rosa County. "Now we're asking people who have not yet left their homes to stay there. Otherwise, they're just going to become part of the problem." Hurricane shelters were nearly at capacity, and several reported food shortages.
"This thing came down on us fast," said one trapped resident. "We've got a large closet in the house, and we'll go in there and cover ourselves with mattresses if it gets that bad."