Ivan hits Gulf Coast

Tallahassee residents were spared the worst of Ivan as the core of the powerful hurricane slammed Southern Alabama early Thursday morning.

High winds continued to batter Tallahassee well after heavy precipitation had stopped in the area and by Thursday afternoon, the city reported that 9,200 people were without power.

Fire Chief Tom Quillin, incident commander for the city’s Hurricane Ivan emergency operations, said in a press release that the city’s crews were working hard to restore power and clear the debris left by the storm.

“We think it’s important to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best, and that’s exactly what we did. Our crews were prepared to efficiently deal with issues as they arose. Tallahassee has certainly been spared from the recent string of hurricanes, and our thoughts are with our neighbors to the west,” Quillin said.

Similar to the situation a week ago, when Frances stormed the area, many businesses closed their doors early Wednesday night and were hesitant to reopen Thursday until they found out exactly what Ivan would do. Local and state government offices, Leon County Public Schools, FAMU, FSU and TCC were closed Thursday. Some businesses even boarded their windows and doors in anticipation of the storm.

But Tallahassee got nothing compared to its western neighbors.

Attacking under cover of darkness and swiftly verifying its reputation as a killer storm, Ivan crashed overnight into a well-developed, hastily abandoned coastline that stretched from Mississippi to Florida.

Even before nightfall, tornadoes spawned by the storm killed two people in Panama City Beach. The scene was described as resembling “a war zone.” Ivan’s death toll now stands at 80, 12 in the United States.

Thursday afternoon, about 650 members of the National Guard deployed from the North Florida Fairgrounds and the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center to help restoration efforts in Panama City and other locations west of Tallahassee.

As its core neared the Gulf Coast, Ivan maintained its 130-mph winds and dreadful designation as a Category 4 hurricane.

Piers crumbled. The Gulf of Mexico covered barrier islands and coastal roads, a salt-water blanket pulled ever higher. Fifty-foot waves towered offshore.

Widespread destruction seemed assured.

“We’re right in the dead zone,” said Richard Griner, a restaurant owner in Pensacola.

Ivan was Florida’s third encounter with a hurricane during this remarkably brutal, not-yet-over season. Of all the hurricane misery endured so far this year, this could be the worst.

“This is one of those complete storms,” said Craig Fugate, Florida’s emergency management director. “Storm surge- significant to catastrophic. Flooding- significant to catastrophic. Winds – significant to catastrophic. Tornadoes, depending on where they touch down – significant to catastrophic.”

Over the next few days, Ivan, downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday afternoon, is expected to continue to hit the Southeast area, spawning dangerous tornadoes and causing flooding as far north as Pennsylvania.

Gary Fineout, Oscar Corral and Martin Merzer reported from Pensacola for Knight Ridder Newspapers.

Contact Elizabeth Broadway at thefamuaneditor@hotmail.com.