Hurricane Kate ripped ashore along the Gulf coast of Florida's Panhandle tonight, packing winds up to 100 mph as it uprooted trees, sheared roofs from buildings and forced tens of thousands of Floridians into emergency shelters for the fourth time in three months.
The storm's 20-mile-wide eye made land just after nightfall between Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach east of here as Kate continued her tortuous trek north after scraping across Cuba on Tuesday.
Reports from Havana were sparse and contradictory, but the hurricane was being blamed for as many as 16 deaths, according to the latest dispatches reaching here. Two people were reported drowned off Key West, Fla., and one man was electrocuted when he stepped on a downed power line in Jackson County northeast of here.
Late tonight, Kate appeared to be diminishing as she cut inland to Georgia. It is the first Atlantic hurricane to hit the mainland United States in November since Nov. 4, 1935.
Even before she came ashore, Kate was being blamed for one death in Florida, that of an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack en route to an evacuation center.
Initial reports indicated the damage from this hurricane would be heavy here in Bay County and to the east in Gulf County, which took the brunt of the storm's steady rains and high winds.
About 30,000 people were without power in Bay County, the roof was sheared from the federal office building in downtown Panama City, and the main water tower in Apalachicola, southeast of Port St. Joe, was blown down. Most major highways and interstates were either flooded or made impassable by debris, fallen trees and power lines.
"All the power lines are on the ground," said Bay County civil defense spokesman Ron Johnson.
He urged restive county residents to remain in emergency shelters -- like the one at Vernon High School north of here -- to avoid the "literally hundreds" of live wires stretched across roads.
In Gulf County, Sheriff Al Harrison told a local television station: "We have a lot of damage. The tides are real high. Highway 98 along the coast is flooded." He said no one would be allowed in coastal areas until after 9 a.m. Friday, and police and National Guard troops were out to enforce the barricades.
The late-season hurricane caused a repeat of now-familiar sights -- evacuees huddled in a darkened schoolhouse, sipping cold coffee, eating sandwiches and crowding around television sets run on emergency generators. "We were going to a motel, but they told us no way could we ever find one anyplace," said Bea Dawson, a retiree from Kalamazoo, Mich., who moved here in the fall. "Let's hope November ends them -- I don't want to go through this again right away."
At Vernon High School, evacuees collected $274 to donate to the school for housing them. "This is my third trip," said Don Cockerham, a recent transplant from North Carolina. "This school is my home away from home!"
"This is the third time this year," exclaimed Milton Howell, a 76-year resident of Florida and a veteran hurricane-watcher. "We usually don't get them this late."
A woman sitting nearby chimed in: "That does it -- I'm moving to Miami!"
Kate came in a season that may well come to be known as "The Year of the Hurricane." Florida's western coast was evacuated twice during the Labor Day weekend for Hurricane Elena, which meandered the Gulf for four days and feinted several times before making her assault on Biloxi, Miss. Hurricane Juan cleared the same coast again last month, then chose Louisiana for his coming-ashore.
The coastal road east from Pensacola was deserted this afternoon, save for a few die-hards trying to operate gas stations and convenience stores and the occasional reporter dodging falling trees in search of a story.
Gov. Robert Graham ordered the evacuation of this and seven other coastal counties, and an estimated 90,000 residents of the Panhandle left their homes as Kate approached.