Elena will be remembered here as an unpredictable hurricane -- "without question . . . the most aggravating, fickle storm I've been associated with in 20 years," in the words of Wade Guice, the veteran Harrison County civil defense director. "She taunted us, she teased us and then she hit us."
Elena's 115-mph winds battered this coastal city early today, breaking storefront windows, uprooting trees and downing power lines near the beachfront, like other great hurricanes before it.
But the greatest destruction from Elena was caused by seven tornadoes that followed its path. One lifted the roof off a school auditorium being used as an emergency center; another caused a gas explosion that destroyed a large public housing project across town.
Two other schools serving as emergency shelters were also damaged by the storm.
Harold D'Angelo said that when he heard a tornado hit the West Elementary School across the street from his house he "dove down beside the bed and threw my mattress over my head and said three 'Hail Marys.' I figured this was the time to get serious religion."
Civil defense officials had been watching Elena for days as it stalled in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But despite the officials' preparations, Elena didn't come Thursday, Friday or Saturday as some had feared, and many had reached the conclusion that it wouldn't arrive here at all.
The eye of the storm passed over Gulfport about 8 a.m., with winds clocked at 115 mph. Jeff Mathias, 21, was at the Highland Square apartments, a three-story public housing complex. "The tornado hit us, and there was a big boom. It rattled the whole building. It was like a train hit us. All of a sudden the building was on fire."
Most residents of the complex had been evacuated Saturday night, but 22 people had remained on the first and second floors. Firefighters, attempting to rescue them, encountered fierce winds of more than 100 mph and a driving rain.
"Our landlord told us that we didn't have to evacuate the second floor because the building had survived hurricane Frederic and Camille," said Trina Fairley. "Now everything's gone, honey. Everyone lost everything. Nothing is left. They say they'll put us up somewhere tonight, but I don't know what we'll do after that."
Eddie Adams, 25, was at West Elementary School early this morning when he heard a strange whistling sound outside. He had just watched a young girl go into the restroom. "I was worried about her, so I reached for the door. Debris just came shooting out -- glass, concrete, wood. She was screaming like the world was going to end. I got her out of there fast."
Moments later the roof of the school auditorium where hundreds of evacuees were gathered, cracked open and was lifted from the structure.
"It was total panic," Adams said. "It was hard keeping control of 400 people, but we did it somehow.
"This Elena was something else," he added. "When she came she came to do a job and she did it."
The school roof landed on a line of about 10 automobiles parked outside. "I was watching my car out of the school window," said Mitch Sayer. "All of a sudden there was a big blue flame and all the cars were smashed except mine."
Gulfport, perched precariously on the Gulf of Mexico, is no stranger to hurricanes. In 1969 Hurricane Camille killed 168 people in surrounding Harrison County, including one group that was holding a hurricane party in a beachfront apartment, and destroyed hundreds of buildings. In 1979 Hurricane Frederic caused widespread damage here.
Hurricane Elena left a trail of broken windows and smashed roofs, and it knocked out electric power for about 100,000 area residents for the day. But while the damage was widespread, it wasn't nearly as severe as those from earlier storms.
"We made out like champions today. We had a lot of little damage, but we had very few major structures that were destroyed," said Richard Glaczier, a spokesman for the Harrison County civil defense department. One elderly woman suffered a mild heart attack and was hospitalized. There were a number of injuries but no fatalities.
State police and National Guardsmen set up blockades on roads leading into the city late today as rain continued. Only residents and rescue workers were allowed inside the city limits.
A dawn-to-dusk curfew was ordered in Gulfport and the neighboring cities of Biloxi, Pass Christian and Pascagoula, which suffered some of the most severe damage from Elena.
National Guardsmen carrying machine guns patrolled downtown Gulfport tonight, guarding against looting. The windows of about half the storefronts in the small downtown area were damaged.
Sand and water covered U.S. 90, the main beachfront road, but it was passable. The roofs of several restaurants and apartment buildings were severely damaged. The Hurricane Camille Gift Shop, beside the highway, was undamaged.
Most residents who spent Sunday night in emergency shelters returned home late in the afternoon even though there was no electric power or telephone service in the city. The windows of many homes and businesses had been boarded up in preparation for the storm. One shelter remained open tonight.
"It was the most frustrating thing, though. We started tracking the storm last Wednesday morning, but we gave up on it and went home Friday afternoon and turnd everything over to the answering machine," said civil defense spokesman Glaczier.