-- Hurricane Ivan's brutish winds conspired with the Gulf of Mexico to drown mile-wide stretches of barrier-island resort towns, turning five-story condominiums into two-story rubble piles and spinning off deadly tornadoes before moving inland Thursday and leaving nearly one-fourth of Alabama's population without power.
The storm killed at least 23 people as it came ashore, ripped apart coastal homes in four states and promised to dump rain for three more days, as it showed resilience by maintaining tropical-storm-force winds on its northward slog toward southern Virginia. At least a dozen tornadoes whirled to life because of Ivan, demolishing hundreds of homes on the Florida Panhandle. Tens of thousands of people slept in public shelters, unable to return to their homes because of high water or snapping electrical lines.
Still, many in this region, where hurricane season is as familiar as football season, felt lucky on Thursday. From the mushy Mississippi Delta towns of Louisiana to the jostled beach haunts of Alabama and Florida, the phrase "we dodged a bullet" was ubiquitous.
Mike Dow, mayor of Mobile, Ala., went even further, saying his city, so near the first landfall of the storm's 135-mph winds, had "caught a bullet with its teeth."
"It's not the first one," police Sgt. Dennis King in nearby Gulf Shores, Ala., said matter-of-factly. "We've overcome others."
King stood at the foot of one of the most vivid displays of Ivan's power. There, on the center line of Highway 59, where Ivan's eye first arrived onshore -- where the storm drove hard and rough through King's lovely little beach town -- was a major road transformed into a 10-foot-deep, three-fourths-of-a-mile-wide horizon-less lake. Off in the distance, too far away to be seen, were multimillion-dollar houses and row upon row of condominiums, where the "summer people" have come for decades to sun themselves on one of the South's best-loved beaches.
"It was nice until now," King said, shaking his head at the plight of this place that has been home for all his 46 years. "I've never seen waves going across the road like that."
Helicopters thundered overhead, their noses tipped down as if they were straining to see the wreckage below them. Somewhere beneath the circulating blades, King feared, were headstrong men and women who had refused to leave.
Ivan proved to be a great teacher of coastal geography. Barrier islands, such as the ones Gulf Shores rests on, were placed there eons ago to protect the mainland from storms just like Ivan. The islands did their job on Thursday. They suffered the most, offering up their pretty beaches to blunt the impact of Ivan on the mainland.
The only problem is that those barrier islands -- white-sand gems that they are -- draw people and houses just as insistently as they block storm winds. Much of the southern edges of these islands was underwater Thursday.
"People have lived on the coast from Day One," said Pete Blalock, a councilman and seafood retailer on the shard of island soil called Orange Beach. "We'll build back better. We're not going anywhere."
The beach in Blalock's town defied imagination. The road leading out to the coast is guarded by 40-foot wooden ships -- one on each side. They were lifted out of the water like toys.
Multi-story condominiums are built on stilts here in lower Alabama. Stilts can keep a home dry in high water, but they cannot stop a 135-mph wind gust. In spots, the stilts stood alone, everything above them washed to sea. Some beachside buildings collapsed upon themselves, pancaking one apartment onto another.
Mattresses, droopy and vile, dangled in the air, wedged between floors of the sagging, barely distinguishable hulks that were once someone's favorite place in the world. Twisted air-conditioning units and splintered dressers rested in ugly heaps.
Outside the ruined Crystal Beach condominiums, the parking lot was dotted with the stuff of summer vacations: long, bendy tubes that children use to stay afloat in the ocean surf, a pillow decorated with a seashell-and-fish pattern. The sturdy stucco half of the building survived; the wooden part -- the part that looked out over the beach -- was a trash mountain.
A newspaper box sat next to the rubble. Inside, the Mobile Register's banner headline for its Tuesday edition, two days before Ivan arrived, read "Ivan Targets Central Alabama." On the street, a few feet away from destruction, lay a bottle of 2001 Indigo Hills chardonnay. Not a drop was spilled. The bottle wasn't even cracked.
If only the same could be said for 300 miles of the Gulf Coast. Nearly a million people were without power in Alabama, ranging from the expected coastal targets of the storm to interior cities, such as Montgomery and Birmingham, which suffered mass outages that could take days to undo. An additional 370,000 people on Florida's Panhandle were without power, and tens of thousands suffered through outages in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Preliminary estimates fix the cost of the storm between $3 billion and $10 billion. Those figures would place Ivan in the same league as Charley, which caused $7 billion damage last month on Florida's west coast, and Frances, which inflicted slightly less damage after making landfall on Florida's east coast earlier this month. President Bush plans to visit Florida and Alabama on Sunday.
The tornadoes spawned by Ivan demonstrated the most concentrated lethal power. Four people were killed in Florida when one twister ravaged a mobile home park in Blountstown, north of Panama City.
The Panhandle took some of the worst damage from Ivan because it was in the ferocious northeast corner of the hurricane, which is known for its punishing winds. But the aftermath of the hurricane, as always, was just as dangerous as the peak moments of its winds. People died in the hours after Ivan left while trying to remove antennas from downed power lines and while clearing fallen trees.
"My heart goes out to the people of Florida," Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said after getting reports on the Panhandle tornadoes. "These are people that have literally been beaten twice, in some cases three times, by these hurricanes."
Brown said he is confident that his agency can respond quickly to the disaster while still working on relief efforts for Charley and Frances. "We are going to have to spend literally billions of dollars to get these people and this infrastructure back up to par," he said. "If you think about the physical damage to public infrastructure, roads, bridges, highways, hospitals and schools -- it's enormous."
Yet Ivan might eventually be best remembered for what it spared. The approaching storm prompted a monumental exodus from the New Orleans area, where the revelation that emergency managers have stockpiled 10,000 body bags in case of a climactic direct strike was fodder for radio talk shows. Yet, for all the fear of a head-on blast at the city, New Orleans was barely touched, enduring little more than gusty winds and minor flooding.
"Oh, heavens, we're grateful for every storm that doesn't come up the river," said Sidney Coffee, the coastal chief for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). "But it can't be escaped forever."
The relief felt by so many was tempered by the weather report. A tropical storm named Jeanne became a hurricane Thursday and lashed the Dominican Republic before weakening. Forecasters predict it will become a hurricane again and could even approach the U.S. coast this weekend in a place familiar with strong winds: Florida.
Staff writer Mary Fitzgerald in Washington and special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Mobile contributed to this report.