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Hurricane Landfall in Florida Panhandle Leaves Destruction

November 22, 1985

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) _ Hurricane Kate weakened to a tropical storm today, but left more than 100,000 people without electricity and Florida’s Panhandle a maze of flooded streets, toppled trees and roofless buildings as it headed north through Georgia and into South Carolina.

The deaths of six people in Florida and Georgia have been blamed on the storm since Wednesday.

Ninety percent of Tallahassee, Fla., a city of 89,500, was without power after Kate barreled ashore Thursday, forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate and spinning at least eight tornadoes across the panhandle and southern Georgia.

The twisters and high wind ripped the roofs off buildings in the Panama City, Fla., area and Meigs, Ga., toppled Apalachicola, Fla.’s water tower, tore down trees and knocked down power lines in Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach and Tallahassee, Fla.

″It is a mess down here,″ said Sheila Cason of the Grady County Sheriff’s Department in Cairo, one of Georgia’s hardest-hit areas. ″All of our lights are out, all of our radios are out, everything.″

Some Georgia schools shut down and roads were closed. In South Carolina, flooding caused traffic problems during the morning rush-hour, and the Highway Patrol reported an increase in fender-benders.

An estimated 3,000 customers were without power in the Hilton Head area, said Jimmy Baker, district manager of the Palmetto Electric Cooperative.

Up to 30,000 homes and businesses were without power Thursday night, from Panama City, Fla., west to Apalachicola River, Gulf Power Co said. Eight Florida Power Co. substations were knocked out, said Joy McIlwain, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Emergency Management.

Workers loaned from Alabama and Georgia companies helped restring the hundreds of downed power lines in Florida.

Officials reported two people drowned when their fishing boat capsized in Kate’s high seas, one man was electrocuted when he stepped on a utility line, another died when a tree fell on his car, severely injuring his 16-year-old son, and an 81-year-old woman died of a heart attack after being evacuated. In Georgia, a man was killed Thursday night when a tree fell on him as he tried to clear a highway accident.

The 11th named storm of the 1985 Atlantic hurricane season, Kate was blamed for up to 10 deaths and ″grave″ destruction to crops and property in Cuba.

In Florida and Georgia, streets were impassable, flooded by heavy rainfall or blocked by fallen trees and coastal roads, which had taken a beating from hurricanes Elena and Juan, were crumbling into the Gulf of Mexico in spots.

Emergency officials warned evacuees to remain in shelters for the night.

Kate’s 20-mile-wide eye hit land between Panama City and Apalachicola with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph and gusts higher than 100 mph.

At 11 a.m. EST, Tropical Storm Kate was centered near latitude 33 north, longitude 80 west, near Charleston, S.C. The storm was moving east-northeast at 20 to 25 mph and was expected to emerge over the South Carolina coast by midday.

Its peak winds were near 55 mph with stronger gusts in squalls, and forecasters said little change was expected in either its speed or strength. Rain spawned by the storm fell to north, in North Carolina and West Virginia, and some flood watches were posted.

Little damage was reported today in Vidalia, in Kate’s path to the Atlantic Ocean, said police dispatcher Ray Corbett. ″We’ve had strong gusts and plenty of rain all night,″ but the only damage reported was a downed tree.

Elsewhere in Georgia, Kate was toppling trees and utility lines, but authorities reported no injuries. Georgia Power Co. spokesman Rick Rountree estimates between 2,000 and 3,000 customers without power in south Georgia ″and that’s probably a conservative estimate.″

″It is a mess down here. All of our lights are out, all of our radios are out, everything,″ said Sheila Cason of the Grady County Sheriff’s Department in Thomasville.

″The roads are blocked to the south to Tallahassee and to the west to Bainbridge,″ said Thomasville Red Cross director Theo Titus. ″Trees and power lines are over the roads, and power is out in outlying areas.″

Two houses were damaged by tornadoes in Meigs, officials said.

″As far as any substantial damage is concerned, I think we’ve already seen the worst,″ said forecaster Mark Zimmer. ″The storm has been over land for ... hours now, and the winds are down to about 75 mph. Unless there are some heavy rains or tornadoes, I don’t think you’ll see any serious damage.″

Hurricane and gale warnings were discontinued for the Gulf coast and gale warnings were raised for the Atlantic coast from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to St. Augustine, Fla.

″I can tell you, it’s bad right now,″ operator Merle Weeks said Thursday at the St. Joseph Telephone & Telegraph Co. in Port St. Joe. ″I can’t see outside, but I can hear it.″

Fifty-three National Guardsmen patrolled evacuated areas on Gulf County on Thursday and 346 were on standby, said Lt. Col. John McNairy from the Guard’s emergency operations center in St. Augustine.

Residents of Bay County and Gulf County, including Port St. Joe which took the brunt of the storm, were allowed to return home today in all but the most isolated areas.

Tornadoes touched down in Panama City and Calhoun County, and high winds tore part of the roof off a school being used as a shelter in nearby Callaway. The roof of the two-story federal building in Panama City was blown off. No injuries were reported in either incident.

More than 100,000 people were evacuated from 10 Florida counties starting Wednesday, many at the order of Gov. Bob Graham. Officials estimated that 75 percent to 90 percent of those ordered to leave did so.

However, some people evacuated twice when Hurricane Elena approached in September before hitting Mississippi and again last month when Hurricane Juan lingered off the coast before veering in over Alabama, refused to leave.

″They’re punchy from getting up and leaving,″ said Pal Rivers, acting director of Civil Defense.

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