Hurricane Elena, with winds reaching up to 110 mph, brushed along the Gulf Coast tonight with 15-foot waves and strong winds. A hurricane warning was in effect for Pensacola and the Florida Panhandle as the storm moved eastward.
As many as 318,000 tourists and residents were ordered evacuated in the Panhandle and as far south as Tarpon Springs. National Guard troops patrolled in some areas to prevent looting.
The storm appeared headed for the region between Cedar Key and Tampa Bay and was expected to hit land by midday Saturday. Officials here told residents not to expect to return to their homes until at least late Saturday.
They were concerned that although Elena appeared to be bypassing this city near the Alabama border, strong rains and tornadoes might follow in its wake. "They're wanting to go home because they've heard the hurricane is not coming here," said Peggy Owens, the Red Cross Disaster Services coordinator. "But we're still looking at a good deal of wind and rain."
More than 2,000 Pensacola residents and vacationers remained scattered among seven emergency shelters in the northern sections of this coastal city, and downtown remained deserted with windows boarded shut.
Among the evacuees were more than 200 people who were staying at a Hilton hotel, newly constructed on the Pensacola Bay. "Ironically, many of them came here from Louisiana trying to get away from the hurricane," Owens said.
Tonight, some Pensacola residents ventured out to the pier behind the municipal auditorium that juts into the East Bay.
Still, the city was eerily quiet, with hotels filled to capacity and thousands camped out on school gymnasium floors, waiting for word as to when they could return to their homes.
Inside the schools, the cafeterias provided free food to the families seeking refuge, while Red Cross workers attend to some medical needs.
Police and rescue workers have set up a command center at a state police barracks here. A spokeswoman there said the top priority was to enforce the evacuation ordered earlier in the day by Gov. Robert Graham.
The bay bridge leading to Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach was blocked tonight to keep residents from returning to their homes and beachfront condominiums. State police officers were enforcing the roadblock.
Many of the evacuees went to Tallahasee, where hotels and shelters were packed.
Earlier, hurricane warnings were lifted in Louisiana, Missisippi and Alabama. In Mobile, skies were clear and sunny as the danger receded, but weather-conscious Mobile residents still hunkered down.
Alabamans recall how Hurricane Frederic spun off toward Florida in 1979 before making an about-face and pounding their coast in one of the state's worst disasters. So downtown Mobile resembled a ghost town today, with department store windows boarded and taped, streets nearly empty.
High school gymnasiums became emergency shelters, with families in sleeping bags lined up wall-to-wall. Grocery store shelves were emptied by stockpilers, and most gasoline stations closed early -- an incongruous state of siege under a postcard-blue sky.
"If you wanted to pick a good day to play golf or work in the yard, this is it," said Bruce McCrory, spokesman for the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency. "But that's deceptive. The sunny skies can be dangerous."
Here in the low-lying Gulf region from New Orleans to the Panhandle, where Frederic caused $2.3 billion in damage and its predecessor, Camille, killed more than 250 people in Mississippi in 1969, a hurricane mentality took hold in spite of appearances.
Thousands of coastal evacuees arrived in Hattiesburg, Miss., where the new Arby's roast beef shop on Rte. 49 offered a "Hurricane Refugee Special."
"We're awfully sorry you had to leave home," the radio-ad announcer said, "but we're glad to have you in town."
Across the radio dial, another commercial inquired, "Are you ready for the storm? Keep the power running with a Toro generator," available at the nearest Biloxi, Miss., equipment store.
Listeners across the state line in Alabama could chart Elena's path with hourly bulletins on the 24-hour news station. Between bulletins, callers offered their time-tested tips for peeling that nasty masking tape off windows once the tempest is past. Suggestions ranged from hair dryers to ether.
Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace declared an emergency evacuation for the low-lying areas of Mobile and Baldwin counties this morning -- almost unnecessarily. By noon, an estimated 100,000 people had left their homes voluntarily, to stay with friends or take refuge in one of the downtown emergency shelters.
Air Force and Navy pilots flew hundreds of aircraft from Gulf Coast bases to safer inland sites. The crew of a British ship calling at the Pensacola Naval Air Station gave up shore leave six days early, casting off to ride out the storm at sea rather than risk a dockside battering.
Meanwhile, disaster experts converged on the region, waiting and watching for Elena to come to shore. Red Cross volunteers from as far away as Columbus, Ohio, and Alexandria, Va., were waiting at staging centers here and in Baton Rouge, with cars to take them wherever Elena landed.
The Red Cross has labeled this disaster "DR-200" by its internal numbering system, and by the time it is over, T-shirts will be printed and certificates will be handed out to the damage assessment experts and others who have volunteered here. Red Cross officials said supplies to help 10,000 families have been dispatched to the region.
By late today, Red Cross shelters across Mobile were slowly starting to empty. "Normally, it rains for a couple of days before a hurricane," said Red Cross worker Terry Gautier. "Today, it's so beautiful, it's hard to tell people to stay in shelters."
Pascagoula Island at the Alabama-Mississippi border on the Gulf was deserted today, except for scattered journalists and a resident, Steve Stevenson, who said he was trying to secure his chimney before fleeing to higher ground.
Meanwhile, the early lifting of the state of emergency created confusion. Wallace nonetheless refused to rescind his evacuation order tonight for residents who wanted to return to coastal areas such as Pleasure Island. Local officials there promised to back up the governor by blocking the single bridge to the island. But as the threat seemed to ease for Mississippi and Alabama counties, the coastal counties of Florida tonight were bracing to receive the brunt of the storm.
In southern Florida, rain drenched Miami and Elena whipped up winds gusts up to 60 mph in Coral Gables. Beaches were closed in the Florida Keys. Smathers Beach on Key West was littered with a small flotilla of overturned boats, and inmates from the Big Pine Key Road prison unit cleaned up an estimated 30 tons of seaweed that had washed up overnight.
The Mississippi and Alabama counties that appear now to have missed Elena still must contend with up to 10 inches of rain, possible flooding and the tornadoes that may occur in the tempest's wake.
The Associated Press reported that in Biloxi, Miss., Charyl Brimage was supposed to have given birth Monday, but her child waited until today. " " I just had to name her Elena," the mother said.