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Hurricane Earl Batters Florida

September 3, 1998

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Earl capsized fishing boats, spun off deadly tornados and dumped nearly 2 feet of rain on the Florida Panhandle before weakening Thursday over Georgia. At least one person was killed and three were missing.

The hurricane came ashore near this Gulf Coast community around 2 a.m. with 80 mph winds but was downgraded to a tropical storm at midday, its winds dropping below 50 mph.

Along the Gulf Coast, the hurricane swamped homes with its 11-foot storm surge, flattened trees and utility poles, lifted roofs off and knocked out power to tens of thousands of people in Florida and Alabama. Panama City got 23 inches of rain.

``A couple of times I was pretty scared,″ conceded Tracey Packard, a TV meteorologist from Jacksonville. ``It was intense.″

Ms. Packard rode out the storm with about 150 people on Florida’s St. George Island who ignored an evacuation order and were cut off Wednesday night when water washed over the only bridge to the mainland. The bridge reopened around noon Thursday.

A tornado ahead of the storm killed one person and left another missing on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. The storm also spun off twisters in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

On the water, two fishing boats, the Can-Too and the Me-Too, flipped three miles off Panama City, tossing all six fishermen into 16-foot seas. Two of the men were found clinging to an overturned boat, one was rescued hanging onto debris and a fourth was found in a life raft.

The two other men were listed by the Coast Guard as missing, but a body that washed ashore in Panama City Beach was believed to be that of one of them.

Two other men whose sailboat capsized near Shell Island swam about three-quarters of a mile to Tyndall Air Force Base after a rescue boat was forced back by choppy water and high winds.

By early evening, the broken-up storm was centered on the Georgia-South Carolina line, with scattered power outages and street flooding reported. The remnants were expected to drift into the Atlantic by way of North Carolina or Virginia this weekend.

Flash flood watches were in effect in North Carolina.

``If we can get rain in the next few days, it will help the soybeans,″ said Jim Eaton, who farms soybeans, wheat and corn. ``The corn is gone, and pods of the soybeans are falling on the ground.″

Steve and Brenda Baldwin and their daughter jumped into their bathtub when they heard a tornado coming at their Citrus County mobile home about 75 miles north of Tampa. The roof tore off, leaving them protected only by a sheet of drywall. Their Rottweiler was flung into a mobile home.

``Whatever was going to come through would have killed us,″ Baldwin said. ``The trailer was off the ground when we were in the tub. I was just hoping we weren’t going to roll and we were going to live.″

In Georgia’s Screven County near the South Carolina line, five people were injured when a tornado hit a house. One child suffered a broken arm and 27 buildings were damaged.

``There’s a little area down from me with trailers. They’re not there anymore,″ said Judith Taylor of Sylvania, Ga. ``Homes were lifted up and dropped back down, but they didn’t come back down in the same place.″

The hurricane had peak winds of 100 mph Wednesday and exasperated forecasters with its uncertainty, first heading for Texas and Louisiana before turning toward Florida. Thousands of people cleared out along the Gulf Coast as the storm closed in.

In 1995, the Panhandle took a one-two punch from Hurricanes Erin and Opal. Erin claimed 11 lives and Opal 27.

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