Hurricane Frederic smashed ashore south of Mobile tonight, hammering the coast with 130-mph winds and lashing the Gulf Coast from Pensacola, Fla., to Gulfport, Miss.
Frederic's gale winds and 15-foot storm tides earlier today had sent nearly a half-million people fleeing inland.
"There ain't no playing around now," said Mobile civil defense director Norman Davis. "I believe there are more people concerned about this one -- I'm talking about really scared -- than any one in the past."
In Mobile, curb-deep water swirled through the streets and windows were blown out. The one-story, 100-foot-long concrete block east wall of the Fort Hardiman National Guard armory was knocked down by the storm's winds, but there were no injuries.
The roof of the Mobile City Hall, built in the 1800s was torn off.
To the west of Mobile, in Pascagoula, Miss., a spokesman for the huge Ingalls Shipyards said the storm caused extensive damage. "Heavy equipment was thrown everywhere, buildings [are] down," he said.
At the height of the storm, roofs were ripped off two of 22 emergency shelters in Pascagoula, forcing rescue crews to move 400 people to other buildings.
In Gulfport, however, 17 people were injured when a building collapsed.
Officials reported the best response to evacuation pleas they had yet seen in the face of a hurricane. In Alabama, 50,000 were evacuated and in Mississippi 100,000 were evacuated. Louisiana officials said about 30,000 had fled their homes. In Florida, up to 300,000 were evacuated by nightfall.
Some Alabamans were reported balking at leaving their homes in low-lying areas and along unprotected shorelines.
"I told my men to ask them who would be the next of kin for us to contact, since we expect up to 10-foot tides," said Fairhope Police Chief Leo Gilheart.
Alabama civil defense spokesman Lee Killough said cars were "bumper to bumper from Mobile to Birmingham. Some of them will travel north until they hear its over and then turn around and go back."
The Florida evacuations took place along a 110-mile stretch of the Florida Panhandle coastline. Downtown Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach were virtually deserted and sporadic power failures were reported. Highway 98 was under water in some areas.
Escambia County Administrator Ron Kendig said 116 persons in 52 homes in the Gulf Breeze community on Escambia Bay, six miles southeast of Pensacola, had refused to be moved. By nightfall, it was too late.
"Gulf Breeze is basically isolated," Kendig said, "and we're afraid they're stranded."
Frederic followed by a week Hurricane David, which killed more than 1,000 in its rampage through the Caribbean, then ripped up the south Atlantic coast, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. David was the second hurricane of the season to hit the mainland. The first, Bob, went aground in the Louisiana marshes, rapidly losing strength and causing relatively little damage.
Forecaster Paul Hebert said Frederic was "approaching a hurricane category 4 on a scale of 1 to 5, which makes it one of the most intense hurricanes to threaten the central Gulf Coast during this century."
In Mississippi, tides 6 feet above normal were reported in Jackson County near the Alabama line. Gov. Cliff Finch authorized mobilization of the National Guard to assist local authorities and freed more fuel for use in the evacuation.
Then, as the storm reached its height, Finch and two aides hopped in a car and drove from the state capital of Jackson into winds sometimes reaching 100 miles an hour, dodging fallen trees, to reach Gulfport. He said he had prepared a request that the state be declared a disaster area and "I already signed it in case I didn't make it."
In Florida, where Gov. Bob Graham ordered out 1,000 National Guardsmen to assist with the evacuation of 150,000 persons, police said they would use force, if necessary, to move people out of the danger areas.
Mayor Gary Greenough of Mobile, Ala., repeatedly urged 70,000 residents of the area to evacuate. To those still there late today, he said, "Just sit down and hang on."
Along the Mississippi coast, where Hurricane Camille left 250 dead and damage in the millions of dollars when it crashed inland near Gulfport 10 years ago, the residents needed little prodding to flee.
"The evacuation is going smoothly," said a Civil Defense spokesman in Gulfport. "I think most people remember what Camille did to our coast in 1969."
Ben Buerger, emergency coordinator on Dauphin Island in Mobile Bay, said about 20 to 25 persons had refused to budge from their homes.
At Hattiesburg, 80 miles inland, a highway intersection was so busy police were sent to deal with traffic jams that backed up cars for over a mile.
At Pascagoula, Miss., the staffs of several hospitals and other emergency personnel were prepared to ride out the storm.
"We're not going anywhere," said Robert Ingle of Singing River Hospital. "But we all remember what Hurricane Camille did when it brought 180 miles per hour winds to our county in 1969."
Nancy Goforth, a secretary at Gulfport Memorial Hospital in Harrison County, said she and other hospital workers remembered the 1969 storm and Frederic worried her.
"I've got to admit that Camille is on my mind but I think we learned something from that storm -- where our weaknesses might be," she said. "I think we're ready this time."
Of the 30,000 evacuated in Louisiana, most were from Plaquemines Parish.
The National Guard was called out to help with the evacuation from lowlying areas in five counties in the Florida panhandle.
"We don't get too much resistance -- most people want to get out because of what Camille did," said sheriff's spokesman Mickey Jeffcoat in Pensacola. Sgt. Don Parker said Florida Gov. Graham's order for evacuation gave deputies the power to forcefully remove people when necessary.
The Navy and Air Force ordered 340 planes flown out of seven bases in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana to get out of the path of the storm.
One man was killed and another was reported missing as the multibillion dollar offshore oil industry shut down. They were among 2,500 workers who left their rigs off the Louisiana coast as Frederic strengthened.