After two days of uncertain twists and false starts, Hurricane Elena parked off Florida's Gulf Coast today, pounding the state with rain and gale winds, killing one man and forcing as many as 1 million residents and visitors to seek refuge in schools, churches and shopping malls.
Elena's onslaught had been expected about 9 p.m. in the arc between the Panhandle and the peninsula. But at 11 p.m., the storm's 40-mile-wide eye, surrounded by 100-mph winds, was 50 miles west-southwest of Cedar Key, about five miles east of its position at noon.
Cedar Key, about 20 miles north of the Crystal River Nuclear Plant, was considered Elena's likeliest Gulf Coast landfall, and most of the remote community's 750 residents were reported evacuated by midafternoon as its streets disappeared under water. But the hurricane's stubbornness made its course even less predictable.
"It has us in a quandary as to whether it's come to a complete stop or whether or not it's going to continue its course toward shore," said National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Lynch.
Earlier in the day, meteorologists were predicting that the storm would cross Florida to Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean, where it could pull itself together again and threaten the East Coast.
"If this thing goes across the peninsula and into the Atlantic, then there's always the possibility that it could redevelop or reintensify," said meteorologist Fred Comer, who has been tracking the storm from the airport here.
Elena's behavior has been erratic since the storm became a hurricane Thursday and lurched fitfully around the Gulf for two days, first heading west toward New Orleans, then shifting course for Florida and routing its coastal residents. "The storm got confused . . . ," said Larry Pfeiffer of the weather service in Ruskin, near St. Petersburg.
As the hurricane lumbered slowly toward the coast earlier today, heavy rain and wind squalls pounded the arc, known as "Big Bend," from Panama City as far south as Sarasota. Florida Gov. Robert Graham ordered that coastal sweep evacuated and called out National Guard troops to enforce the order.
A man in Daytona Beach on the Florida's eastern coast was killed when a tree, hit by lightning or a tornado, fell on his car and broke his neck.
Several tornadoes resulting from the storm touched down in central Florida, according to the Associated Press, injuring at least seven people and destroying mobile homes.
Roads leading inland from the Gulf Coast were jammed with travelers, while other evacuees took refuge in Red Cross emergency shelters. Here in the capital city, more than 500 people checked into seven shelters, while city police prepared street barricades against potential flooding.
Rain and winds here downed power lines and plunged huge sections of the city into darkness. The Tallahassee Police Department was hit by a power failure and turned to emergency generators.
Residents taped and boarded windows and stripped grocery store shelves of food and batteries.
In Tampa Bay, where waves reportedly swelled to 8 feet, two runaway barges slammed into the bridge connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg, closing the bridge indefinitely, U.S. Coast Guard officials said. No injuries were reported.
In populous Pinellas County, a peninsula separated from mainland Florida by Tampa Bay, more than 150,000 people were evacuated to about 60 makeshift shelters, and residents were barricaded by flooded bridges. The Associated Press reported that 500,000 customers in the area were without electricity.
"It's windy, it's rainy, we've got a lot of flooding, and we feel cut off from the rest of the world," said Marge Gompertz, a volunteer answering telephones for the Red Cross.
The region is home to a sizable elderly population -- 35 percent of its citizens are over 65 years old, by some estimates. Today, Red Cross officials grappled with the seemingly monumental task of evacuating area hospitals and nursing homes along the coast.
"We've got a lot of elderly here," said Ernest Sanchez, director of the Red Cross' St. Petersburg chapter. "We've got people on oxygen, we've got diabetics and people in wheelchairs -- and they're slow-moving."
Sanchez added, "We're having a tough time with supplies -- food, blankets and cots. We're using up our resources. It's an unnatural event to try to house tens of thousands of people for hours."
St. Petersburg shoppping centers became shelters, some accommodating as many as 8,000 people. There were more evacuees than expected, Sanchez said, partly because the governor made his order mandatory but also because people vividly remember similar storms that have hit other coastal communities.
"It's been 65 years since a storm hit this close to us," he said.
Although Elena had not come ashore, coastal residents were busy assessing its potential costs while state and federal officials mobilized for what promises to be a massive cleanup operation.
In Atlanta, the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency alerted its personnel to be prepared to move into the area. Residents of disaster areas designated by the governor would be eligible for low-interest loans and grants to rebuild or up to $5,000 in emergency relief funds.
Meanwhile, Red Cross officials in Mobile were poised to move into the Florida bend, as soon as it became clear where the storm would come to shore, according to an official there.
Elena has already proved costly for the faltering Gulf economies. Florida has mounted the most massive evacuation in history, and beachfront resorts all the way to eastern New Orleans were evacuated on what ordinarily would have been one of the busiest weekends of the summer season.
Some of the Gulf resort communities were counting on the influx of Labor Day beachgoers to revive what had been a sluggish tourist season. Pensacola Beach, where the hurricane was first anticipated to come ashore, expected its population of 4,000 to balloon to over 30,000 when the condominium owners came to town.
On the other hand, Tallahassee hotels were packed today with evacuees, and the story was the same for all inland motels and hotels across the affected area.
Florida's Gulf Coast has seen a development boom over the last few years, with new condominiums, beach resorts and hospitals now lining the sandy white beaches from Panama City to St. Petersburg. But one vicious storm last year persuaded the state legislature here to put new curbs on developers building on beachfront property, including new standards for wind resistance in buildings.