The Tilt-a-Whirl was tilted, whirled and crushed into a hunk of tangled metal. The Ferris wheel was flattened, the kiddie rides were crumbled, and the Simple Simon arcade game was catapulted two blocks away. The entire Gulf Shores Amusement Park was a shambles Friday, littered with seats shaped like spaceships, key chains shaped like dolphins and other carnival detritus.
The park once was one of the most familiar landmarks in Gulf Shores, a tourist resort on the 32-mile strip of sugar-white barrier beaches known as Pleasure Island. Now it is one of the most vivid symbols of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ivan, a killjoy of a storm that bulldozed seaside grills, motel swimming pools, kitschy souvenir shops, rickety wooden boardwalks and other mainstays of the nation's beach-vacation culture. It tossed the beach itself all the way across West Beach Boulevard, dumping sand into restaurants, shops and parking lots.
"It's a beach town, and the beach took a pounding," said Gulf Shores Police Chief Arthur Bourne. "But we'll clean it up for next summer and make it better than ever."
Officials opened the Gulf Shores beach to reporters Friday, offering the first glimpses of the impact of Ivan at landfall.
With 130-mph winds and storm surges around 15 feet, Ivan tore apart condominium balconies, ice cream stands and motels as well as a massive concrete pier. Ivan has not relented in its deadly rampage into Appalachia, but the tourism infrastructure of Pleasure Island absorbed its most powerful punch.
The "E" in Souvenir City's marquee was impaled on the fin of the giant shark in front of its entrance, and scads of the store's T-shirts, flip-flops, sunglasses, seashells, rubber balls and coffee mugs were scattered around its parking lot. Lulu's, a popular restaurant owned by singer Jimmy Buffett's sister, lost its turquoise roof, and the Original Oyster House, another local hot spot, was inundated by about five feet of water. A water park called Waterville was almost completely underwater. And at the multicolored shop next door to the Gulf Shores Amusement Park, a banner promised "ENTIRE STORE 60% OFF," which was almost literally true after Ivan's floodwaters ripped through the lower floor.
But the most striking image of Ivan's assault on Gulf Shores was the dollar-a-ride amusement park itself, almost completely dismantled by ferocious gusts. The unseen guts of the attraction -- gears, pipes, insulation -- were flung together with toilets, mangled concession stands and a Hoop Shot free-throw arcade game in a waterlogged pile of debris. Someone apparently tried to secure one of the rides with pink gardening tape. A size 7 flip-flop, with the word "Dizzy" on the heel, dangled from a tree that stopped the two-block hurricane flight of one of the amusement park's thrill-ride seats -- a "double rider," which required a red ticket, according to one of the few remaining signs. It is hard to imagine anyone riding it ever again.
"Oh, what a shame. That amusement park was a fixture of Gulf Shores," said Bebe Gauntt, a manager at the local tourism bureau. "The kids just loved it. It was one of the things that gave us our small-town feel."
That small-town feel has been changing in recent years, with luxury high-rises rapidly replacing flimsy motels and well-heeled jet-setters gradually crowding out middle-class tin-can tourists. Local officials have been trying to shed the area's reputation as the Redneck Riviera, and the number of building permits has skyrocketed along the shore. Hurricane Ivan pounded the new condos, breaking windows, flooding lobbies, obliterating piers, littering the beach with typical disaster debris. A bottle of bleach. A propane tank. A porcelain birdbath. A child's lawn chair. A pile of air conditioners.
"Twenty-five years ago, I could drive up and down the beach and go fishing. There was nothing but those big, pretty dunes," said Sonny Hawkins, a former Baldwin County commissioner who was helping to clear debris Friday. "Now you can't even see the beach with all the condos. It makes you want to cry."
In fact, rumors had been swirling long before Ivan that the amusement park property was about to be converted into condos as well. "Well, it was in a prime location," Gauntt of the tourism bureau said. "It might not have lasted for long." Change is inevitable for any community; in this case, Ivan might have accelerated it.
Still, Gauntt believes that Gulf Shores can maintain its culture as the kind of place where kids go to amusement parks and eat cotton candy, even if the amusement parks disappear. "We'll never lose that," she said. "That's who we are."
She might take comfort from a storm-soaked Bible that somehow landed in the rubble of the park, flipped open to a section from the Song of Solomon: "Many waters cannot quench love. Nor can the floods drown it."