Erin Leaves 1 Million Without Power; Five Missing At Sea
HOMOSASSA SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Erin sank two ships and knocked out power to more than 1 million people in the steamy August heat Wednesday before swirling into the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm. At least two people were reported killed and five were missing at sea.
The storm blew ashore with 85 mph winds shortly after 1 a.m. near Vero Beach, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, and roared across the state’s midsection in 10 hours, threatening to become a hurricane again as it drew strength from the warm Gulf waters. The storm’s tailwinds spawned tornadoes and severe thunderstorms that caused flooding in Brevard County.
By evening, Erin’s winds had climbed back to 70 mph, and forecasters said they expected the storm to pass the 74 mph hurricane threshold by the time it hit land again near the Mississippi-Louisiana line early Thursday afternoon.
Low-lying New Orleans, ``the most vulnerable city in the United States,″ seemed to be the storm’s target area _ complicating the job for forecasters, said Bob Burpee, National Hurricane Center director.
At 11 p.m. EDT, Erin was centered about 55 miles south of Apalachicola, moving west-northwest near 15 mph. Wind gusts of 50 mph and heavy rains were already being felt in Apalachicola.
Many coastal residents scrambled for cover as the storm targeted the Gulf Coast from Apalachicola to Mississippi. More than 200 aircraft from military bases along the Florida Panhandle were flown inland, and 9,000 people in Louisiana were ordered to evacuate when the governor declared a state of emergency.
In southern Alabama, Red Cross shelters filled quickly.
``They’re coming in much quicker. In an hour’s time, we went from 100 people to 300 people,″ said spokeswoman Michelle Wamble.
But on Bourbon Street in New Orlean’s French Quarter, the party went on as usual.
Peter Winters, general manager of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, said guests would be alerted about the possibility of taking shelter from high winds and possible flooding.
``We just hope the Mississippi River stays where it belongs,″ he said.
Nervous residents along the Gulf Coast replayed a scene acted out earlier in the week along Florida’s eastern coast; gobbling up water, batteries, canned foods, candles and flashlights.
James Holt, the assistant manager of the Winn Dixie in Gulf Shores, Ala., said business finally waned near 8:30 p.m., because many residents had already evacuated.
``It was rocking and rolling earlier,″ he said. ``We got our storm shutters up and we are waiting for the word to shut down and get out of here ourselves.″
On its path across central Florida, Erin uprooted trees, knocked down power lines and peeled back the roofs of buildings. But it lacked the fury of Andrew, which devastated south Dade County in 1992.
``This is not a hurricane. It’s a pussycat,″ said Jim Godwin, a fisherman who lives along the Gulf Coast near Homosassa Springs.
Walt Disney World came through unscathed except for a few downed trees on the edges of the Magic Kingdom.
State insurance officials had no immediate damage estimates but expected a large number of minor claims.
``It’s a big letdown,″ said Bill Ribkee, a 28-year-old carpet company owner from Spring Hill along the Gulf Coast. ``I was hoping it would flood so my business would pick up.″
The highest drama came about 90 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral when the Club Royale, a 234-foot gambling ship, sank in heavy seas with a crew of 11.
Coast Guard helicopters and ships had rescued eight crew members by midafternoon. The ship had put to sea Monday with a skeleton crew to ride out the storm.
``When it started listing, eight of them abandoned ship in the life rafts, and the other three stayed on board, and they never saw them after the boat sank,″ said Coast Guard Petty Officer Chris Rose.
Late Wednesday, the Coast Guard suspended a searched for a father and daughter whose small raft was blown out to sea off Cape San Blas in the Florida Panhandle. It was to resume at sunrise.
Erin also sank a tugboat off the coast of Georgia. All five crew members were rescued.
Florida officials blamed two deaths on the storm: A 75-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack after she was evacuated to a Tampa shelter hours before the storm hit land, and a Palm City man who was crushed to death under a stack of plywood as he boarded up his home.
The storm left 1 million people without electricity in Florida, and utility officials warned it could take several days to restore power to everyone. But by early evening, electricity was back on in about half the affected homes.
Forecasters said the temperature will be in the low 90s for the next couple of days, pushing the heat index _ a measure of both heat and humidity _ to the 100-degree mark.
``It’s going to be hard for some people, but it’s not deadly until the heat index reaches 105,″ said Michael Ehrenberg of the National Weather Service. ``This is normal Florida weather, but if you don’t have air conditioning it will be uncomfortable.″
The state’s Emergency Operations Center hadn’t received any reports of elderly people having problems with heat. Many had been evacuated to shelters.
``It’s kind of uncomfortable, we have windows open and a breeze is blowing, but it’s not like an air conditioner,″ said Kenneth O’Steen, a 65-year-old retiree in Melbourne. ``The biggest inconvenience is no television and no lights.″
The storms flooded streets in Brevard County, along the central Atlantic coastline, with water surging up to 3 feet in some low areas.
``It was just unbelievable the amount of water,″ O’Steen said. ``It was coming down so fast the ground just couldn’t absorb it.″
The strongest winds hit north of Vero Beach, tearing off roofs, toppling power lines and collapsing carports along Florida’s Space Coast from Fort Pierce to St. Augustine.
Apartment buildings in Cocoa Beach on the Atlantic Coast and New Port Richey on the Gulf Coast were heavily damaged, and homes and businesses across central Florida had light damage.
At the Wind Tree Apartments in New Port Richey, tenant Edward Terry searched for his belongings after the storm peeled off his building’s roof.
``It sounded like a ... big wind swirling in such a manner I thought I was going to take off like Mary Poppins,″ he said.