Hurricane Erin roared across this Florida Panhandle city and into Alabama Thursday with gusts topping 100 mph and blinding sheets of rain. Thousands of residents and tourists fled inland.
"We know there are roofs that have blown off houses. We have trees down everywhere," said Santa Rosa County emergency management chief Tom Roche. "Major power outages, boats sunk, things like that."Funnel cloud reports abounded, transformers exploded, hundreds of trees were uprooted for miles, street signs were toppled and emergency officials received spotty reports of major building damage as the eye moved inland. It caught by surprise many who had expected it to go farther west.
"This is a storm that could really hurt people," Gov. Lawton Chiles warned.
Gulf Power Co. said 39 percent of its customers - about 300,000 people - had no electricity.
By early Thursday afternoon the outer edge of Erin's wide eye had crossed the Florida-Alabama line after passing over downtown Pensacola, the National Hurricane Center said.
Erin was moving toward the northwest at about 15 mph and was expected to continue that motion through the night. That would take it through southern Alabama, southern Mississippi and into central Louisiana, said Bob Burpee, director of the hurricane center in Miami.
On its charge from the Atlantic across the Florida Peninsula on Wednesday, Erin sank two ships, left five people missing at sea and cut off electricity to 1 million people. Two people died during storm preparations.
The storm weakened during its passage across land and was downgraded to a tropical storm but regained strength after sliding out onto the warm Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday.
Escambia County emergency officials measured wind blowing at a steady 94 mph Thursday. A ham radio operator reported a 110 mph gust about 15 miles east of Gulf Breeze, the weather service said. Tropical storm-force wind extended up to 85 mph out from the center, the weather service said.
"The wind beat it so hard it bentthe door almost in half," said Lori Sheldt of Pensacola Beach, a barrier island town south of the city. She spoke during a respite while the eye passed over the beach.
Pensacola has escaped a direct hit from a hurricane for nearly 70 years.
Many Panhandle coastal residents had failed to take the hurricane warnings seriously, and Erin's turn toward them early Thursday caught them by surprise, state meteorologist Mike Rucker said.
"All along the coast last night there was an easy feeling that it was moving along parallel to the coast," he said.
Marie Jernigan, 40, who lives on the Yellow River in Crestview, changed her mind Thursday and took her three grandchildren to a shelter.
"We waited it out last night, but those winds got pretty high," Jernigan said. "I was pretty scared. I was scared because we have such a small car and we wouldn't be able to get through all those winds."
Rusty Hilbert and his family were trapped in Fort Walton Beach after deciding too late they might need to evacuate. Hilbert said his five children, aged 16 months through age 13, were frightened.
"Most of their eyes are wide-eyed - not saying anything," Hilbert said. "They saw a waterspout or tornado - it went right over the hotel and that time they got a little serious about it.
"It's blowing sideways rain 50 to 60 miles per hour," Hilbert said. "If I was driving a car 90 miles per hour that's probably what it looks like."
Coastal bridges were closed and everyone but emergency personnel was ordered off the highways. "Power lines are going down at a rate we cannot keep up with," said David Miller, emergency operations coordinator in Bay County, some 90 miles east of Pensacola.
To the west in Alabama, Lee Helms, director of the state Emergency Management Agency, estimated at least 100,000 people had been evacuated. "That may be a conservative estimate," he said.
"Hotels and motels are full as far as 200 miles inland," he said.
Marlin Metzeler, manager of the 88-room Best Western at Atmore, 60 miles from the coast, said he had to turn away hundreds of people. "The parking lot filled up and we just let them sit if they want to," he said. "I know their feeling. They just want to get away from it."
The high school in Robertsdale, Ala., about 20 miles north of the coast, held more than 700 evacuees.
In southeastern Louisiana, site of a once-in-a-century flood three months ago, more than 9,000 residents had been ordered to evacuate. Alabama officials opened shelters and asked for voluntary evacuation of Dauphin Island and low-lying areas of Mobile County.
The storm's turn onto the Florida Panhandle eased the threat to New Orleans. In anticipation of a more westerly track, officials had closed almost all of the 109 floodgates lining Lake Pontchartrain.