PENSACOLA, Fla., Sept. 16 -- Hurricane Ivan battered the U.S. Gulf Coast Thursday, knocking out electricity to more than a million customers, unleashing destructive tornadoes and widespread floods and causing at least 11 deaths.
The damage did not appear to be as great as authorities had feared, as Ivan's winds weakened somewhat as the eye of the storm made landfall at about 3 a.m. Eastern time near Gulf Shores, Ala. But forecasters warned that it could produce more tornadoes over the next 24 hours and trigger dangerous flooding over the southeastern United States in the next few days.
A bridge over Escambia Bay north of Pensacola, Fla., is cut in two by Hurricane Ivan with a tractor-trailer rig swallowed by the gap.
(Rick Wilking - Reuters)
_____Ivan Hits the Gulf Coast_____
Gallery: Hurricane Ivan's destructive force hit Gulf Coast states Thursday, spawning tornadoes and causing widespread floods.
Video: WJXT - Jacksonville reporter Jim Piggott assesses the damage from Hurricane Ivan in Blountstown, Fla.
Interactive: Get weather reports from cities in the storm's path.
Map: Track Ivan's Path
Graphic: How a hurricane creates a storm surge.
Transcript: Hector Guerrero, meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center, discusses the path of the hurricane.
The center of the storm was about 25 miles southwest of Birmingham, Ala., at 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday with maximum sustained winds decreasing to near 60 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The storm was headed north-northeast at about 14 mph on a path that the hurricane center said would gradually take it the length of Alabama by early Friday. Ivan was expected to move across Tennessee, then turn into southwestern Virginia by Saturday morning, the latest tracking information showed.
As it made its way inland, Ivan weakened to a tropical storm, and the hurricane center discontinued warnings west of the Alabama-Mississippi border. But tropical storm-force winds still extended outward 105 miles from Ivan's center, and the storm spawned at least a dozen tornadoes in Florida.
Hurricane center forecasters warned that tornadoes were possible through Friday in eastern Alabama, northern and central Georgia, eastern Tennessee, South Carolina and western North Carolina.
As Ivan was weakening, another storm originating in the Caribbean, dubbed Jeanne, was briefly elevated to hurricane status. As of 5 p.m., the tropical storm was about 50 miles northeast of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with sustained winds near 70 mph. A hurricane warning was discontinued for the Dominican Republic Thursday afternoon, but remained in effect for the southeastern Bahamas. Forecasters projected Jeanne's path as taking it toward the Atlantic coastline of the southeastern United States by Tuesday.
Local officials were still assessing the extent of death and injuries caused by Ivan Thursday evening. The deaths included at least four people killed when a tornado struck Blountstown, Fla., the Associated Press reported. In addition, an 8-year-old girl was crushed to death by a tree that fell onto her mobile home in Milton, Fla., two persons were killed when several tornadoes ravaged Bay County, Fla., and four ailing patients reportedly died after being evacuated from their homes in southern Louisiana.
More than 1.4 million people lost power in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana -- in addition to about 160,000 Florida residents whose electricity had not yet been restored following Hurricanes Charley and Frances.
In Florida's panhandle, part of a bridge on Interstate 10 was washed away, hundreds of homes were damaged and many buildings were surrounded by water.
The hard-hit city of Pensacola woke up this morning to scenes of destruction. Downtown and residential streets were obstacle courses of tree limbs, traffic lights and power lines that twisted in the wind like snakes. The city's poleless traffic lights, attached to overhanging wires, rocked just a few feet above the roofs of passing cars. Railroad crossing arms were snapped like toothpicks.
Many homes and businesses sustained damage that ranged from significant to minor. The Bee-Line Automotive Repair garage on North Garden Street on the western end of town was wrecked, with one corner of the red brick building caved in and a back wall blown off. A stray dog chased a piece of trash in the debris-strewn parking lot. A large tree was uprooted and blocked the entrance of the nearby Greek Orthodox Church.
Aaron Johnson, 43, said he was lying on his sofa in his small wooden home in a residential neighborhood on West Gregory Street late Wednesday evening when a large chunk of sheet rock from the ceiling above came crashing down.
"It happened fast," said Johnson. "It scared me." Thursday morning, Johnson walked through his living room, stepping over a mound of wet sheet rock on top of a couch. Johnson said the house has been unlucky for him. In January, he said, a robber stabbed him in his right eye, rendering it useless.
Rain came down in the bedroom, falling on the wheelchair of a friend who has brain damage and is under Johnson's care, he said. He said he was trying to figure out how to get his disabled friend and his cousin out of the house and to a shelter.