Hurricane Ivan Slams U.S. Gulf Coast

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 16, 2004

Hurricane Ivan, at one point one of the most powerful hurricanes on record, roared into the Gulf Coast near Mobile, Alabama around 2 a.m. CT today. Its peak winds exceeded 125 miles an hour (200 kilometers an hour) and drove a 16-foot (4.9-meter) storm surge.

The hurricane had weakened considerably from its top intensity earlier this week. But it still inflicted heavy damage in Pensacola, Florida, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of where the storm's eye came ashore.

Ivan made landfall as a Category Three on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which rates hurricanes from one to five according to wind speeds and destructive potential. A Category Three hurricane has winds from 111 to 130 miles an hour (179 to 209 kilometers an hour).

Although the eye of Hurricane Ivan went ashore west of Pensacola, the city caught the full force of the storm, because it was struck by the storm's front right quadrant. This part of a hurricane always packs the strongest punch: It combines the storm's strongest winds with the force of the hurricane's forward motion.

Six people were killed in Bay County, Florida, and officials know that more people have died. Janice Gilley, a county commissioner in Escambia County—which includes Pensacola—said an elderly couple refused to leave their home on Santa Rosa Island, a barrier island just offshore from Pensacola. As of early this morning, the couple's fate was unknown.

More Fatalities

Gilley said 25-foot (7.6-meter) waves were already pounding Santa Rosa Island Wednesday around 4 p.m., when the bridges leading to the mainland were closed. The elderly couple had not left by then, she said.

Fatalities have been reported in Escambia County, but Gilley said it could be days before officials know how many people died. Four hospitals in the city were seriously damaged by the storm, and the roof was torn off a nursing home, she said. No one was killed in those incidents, she said.

In Flomaton, Alabama, five people were trapped when their house was destroyed. Rescue workers tried but couldn't get to the people as the storm still raged.

Gilley, who lives about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Pensacola, said the hurricane's fiercest winds started pounding the area around midnight and continued unabated for "five or six hours."

"It sounded like a train, for hours," she said. "Like a train going right above us, for hours."

Downtown Pensacola started going underwater around sundown Wednesday. By 7 p.m., the water had reached the city's civic center, where about 2,700 people had taken shelter. The evacuees went to higher levels in the building to escape the water.

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