Hurricane Elena gathered strength, speed and decisiveness today, ending a two-day stall off the Florida coast and aiming its 125 mph winds toward New Orleans. Forecasters said the eye of the storm could reach land by daybreak.

About half a million Florida and Alabama residents, some of whom fled Friday and returned when the danger appeared to subside, were involved in a second evacuation of the area. Mississippi's three coastal counties and Plaquemines Parish, La., south of New Orleans, also were evacuated again.

Late tonight, after moving west-northwest at 10 mph most of the evening, Elena was taking a more westerly course at 12 to 15 mph, authorities said.

Storm refugees have been arriving at Perry Primary School here for three days from such coastal towns as Cedar Key, now flooded and isolated, and nearby Crystal River, leaving their homes, clothing and belongings for a hard gymnasium floor and three meals a day served by Red Cross volunteers.

They have passed uncertain days and nights playing board games, watching television and crowding around transistor radios for news of Elena, which stalled offshore Friday and, until this morning, had been creeping irresolutely toward the "Big Bend" between the Panhandle and the Florida peninsula.

Today, a pastor from a nearby Baptist church came by the school-turned-shelter to conduct a service.

"One minute it's in Panama [City], the next minute it's in Tarpon Springs," said Margaret Bass, who moved into the school two days ago to wait out Elena's wrath. "I don't believe those weathermen anymore. If the Lord could tell me right now, I'd believe Him, because He's the only one who knows what it's going to do."

"You had to leave everything," said Alice Williams, 83. "If it comes through, well, the Lord gives it, the Lord takes it away. But I'm praying the Lord will take care of it."

While Williams and her new roommates worshiped, Elena's tendrils whipped the world outside with tornadoes and rain that left much of the coastal lowlands empty, battered and desolate. Although Elena's eye did not come ashore as it threatened to do, trees along Rt. 19 from Tallahassee to hard-hit Cross City had been shorn of their branches and overflowing creeks had created swamps and lakes.

Debris littered the highway, roadside pecan stands and gasoline stations had been boarded up, and signs of an unwinnable battle with nature were everywhere: awnings ripped off, billboards overturned, even traffic lights torn from their cables.

Williams, like many of the older evacuees here, remembers the devastation of hurricanes past. This time, she needed no second invitation to evacuate.

"I've seen two before," she said. "I was younger then. I didn't take warnings. I just stayed in bed and covered up. The last one, trees came up, and it took that big sycamore tree and laid it right in front of my house. That was a warning."

Now, she said, "when they tell me to go, I go."

Cleo Diggs, another Perry resident who fled a low-lying area, agreed. "I'm not thinking about my stuff," she said. "I'm thinking about me. I'm crippled, so when they tell me, I go."

At 76, longtime Perry resident O.W. Padgett has vivid memories of the nameless hurricane that killed 423 people in 1935 after punishing the Florida coast with 12-foot waves and winds over 200 mph.

"This is a fine place to be in this type of weather," Padgett said as he watched a torrential downpour from the school's covered veranda. "In '35, you didn't have any place to go, and if you left and went back, you didn't have anything to go back to anyway. I lost everything I had -- the house, the bed, everything!

"The one in '35," he continued, "you knew two hours before that it was going to hit. It hit, and two hours later everything was normal, the skies were clear. This one's different. This one can't be predicted."

William Blue, 61, was 11 years old when that storm swept through over Labor Day weekend 50 years ago. "It put a big old sycamore tree over into the house while we were eating dinner," he recalled.

Now Blue lives about five miles from the Gulf, in a frame house beaten for three days by Elena's leading edge. "My house is probably gone," he said casually. "Nothing to worry about -- if it's gone, it's gone. If it ain't, it ain't."

More recent transplants to Florida, such as James J. Roll, 67, who moved to Steinhatchee from Kalamazoo, Mich., remembered more recent hurricanes. "Donna came through [in 1960] and about blew the place apart," he said.

When a Red Cross truck drove through Steinhatchee Saturday, blaring evacuation orders through a rooftop microphone, "I took the man's word for it," Roll said. "He said you'd better get the H out of here."

Like most of the evacuees here, Roll remained casually reflective about his circumstances. "I'm philosophical about it," he said. "In California, you have earthquakes, in Chattanooga you have mudslides. Even Providence, Rhode Island, had a hurricane up there . . . . If I lose my house, it's insured. At least I'll have the land -- then I'll sell it and buy a farm in Georgia someplace."

From coastal Cedar Key, the Associated Press reported:

Hurricane warnings were extended from Yankeetown, Fla., about 60 miles north of Tampa, westward to Grand Isle, La., about 50 miles south of New Orleans.

Blamed for at least one death in Daytona Beach, Fla., Elena was expected to reach land by daybreak if it sustained its movement, Mark Zimmer, a forecaster with the National Hurricane Center, said tonight.

Farther south, officials lifted evacuation orders in central Florida near Tampa, allowing about 500,000 people to return home. National Guard troops, called out earlier today to keep restless evacuees from returning to the coast, were told to check identifications of those returning.

Elena had forced evacuations Thursday in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama's two coastal counties and the Florida Panhandle before the storm veered toward Florida's west-central coast, where an estimated 1 million people were evacuated late Friday and Saturday.

Alabama and Panhandle residents began returning home as the storm stalled 50 to 55 miles west-southwest of Cedar Key on Saturday.

The hurricane started moving today, and Zimmer said the storm had "established a definite track, heading north-northwest." At that point, forecasters said it could reach land between Pensacola and Mobile, Ala. Then it took the more westerly course that extended the threat to Louisiana.

At midnight, the center put Elena's eye about 125 miles southeast of Mobile and about 225 miles east-southeast of New Orleans, with sustained winds of 125 mph.

About 250,000 people were affected in the five Panhandle counties where Gov. Robert Graham ordered the second evacuation, said Bob Nave of the state Department of Emergency Management. Alabama officials estimated that 175,000 people were affected by evacuation orders there.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said winds reaching 95 mph were reported this evening in Apalachicola as the storm swept past in the Gulf.

"Evacuation must be rushed to completion," the center said in a statement. By mid-evening, Florida authorities said those who had not fled would be unable to do so because escape routes had been blocked by rising water.

Hurricane warnings were discontinued along 110 miles of central Florida coast, from Citrus to Sarasota counties, with gale warnings taking their place in much of the area. Tornadoes and flooding were possible around the edges of the storm, the center warned.

Elena was reclassified as a Category 3 hurricane, up one step on a 1-to-5 scale of ferocity, forecaster Hal Gerrish said. "This is the strongest since Alicia hit Galveston Island in 1983," said Gerrish. "The longer it thrashes the coast, the more damage it will do."

On Saturday, the highest sustained winds were 100 mph. Cedar Key bore the brunt of the hurricane's outlying wind and high water as rain and tornadoes hammered other parts of the state. One man was killed Saturday on Florida's eastern coast, and three persons died of heart attacks, Florida officials said. More than 150 homes were destroyed or damaged by tornadoes.

In all, the Red Cross opened about 310 shelters Saturday from Tampa and St. Petersburg into southern Georgia, and more than 240,000 people spent the night in them, American Red Cross President Richard Shubert said today in a briefing in Washington.

Off the coast today, U.S. Coast Guard cutters rushed toward two disabled vessels.

The 400-foot freighter Master Charge with 24 aboard was drifting without steering or power off Tampa Bay toward the eye of the hurricane, said Coast Guard spokesman Dan Waldshchmidt. A fishing boat with two aboard was reported taking water off Fort Myers to the south.

Jacksonville, on the Atlantic Coast, received 6.46 inches of rain today and more than 10 inches since Friday, officials said.