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News Briefs I

Hurricane Opal Kills 15, Causes $1.8 Billion in Damages

The Washington Post

Hurricane Opal cut a deadly and destructive path through the South on Thursday, killing 15 people in four states and battering the homes, resorts and condominiums that line a 120-mile stretch of Florida's famous Gulf Coast beaches.

Florida officials said fast-moving Opal, which disintegrated into a tropical depression as it made its way to the Midwest, was one of the most destructive storms ever to hit the state. Initial estimates are that Opal caused at least $1.8 billion in insured property damages, second only to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated a portion of South Florida in 1992 and caused $17 billion in damages.

In Florida, a 76-year-old woman was killed in her home in Crestview, where the storm spawned a tornado. The Associated Press reported that in Georgia, seven people were killed in accidents related to Opal. In Alabama, six died in weather-related accidents, including two people killed when a tree fell on a trailer, and in western North Carolina, a man was killed when a tree fell on a mobile home.

Opal knocked out power to nearly 2 million people in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas, and many, especially in the Florida panhandle were without water. Fifteen Florida counties were approved for federal emergency aid, and National Guardsmen were posted in Panama City, which was under a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

All along Highway 98 here Thursday, residents staggered back to their beach town homes and looked with horror at the great destruction that Hurricane Opal had wrought.

The Miracle Strip, as it's known here, has never looked worse. In some places, boats and the thick wood pilings to which they were strapped have been ripped from the water by the storm and hurled at least a half mile to the shore. Houses were flattened, storefronts battered. Fallen trees and debris filled most roads. Most towns had no power, and gas and ice were virtually impossible to find.

In nearby Fort Walton Beach, Rev. Ray Blanchard awoke to find a neighbor carting around an American flag that looked an awful lot like the one that flies above his Westwood Baptist church. It was - and Blanchard soon discovered that the church's entire roof had been crushed by the mighty storm. He spent the morning there picking through rubble as the sun cast a bright glow upon his pews.

"I've never seen anything like it," Blanchard said. "But despite this we still feel very lucky. Yesterday my wife thought that we should come inside the church during the storm but at the last minute we decided against it and left town instead."

After moving swiftly across the Gulf of Mexico, Opal hit land early Wednesday evening with 125 mph winds that in some places gusted up to 150 mph. It spared little in its path.

But because the coastline had largely been evacuated, most of the damage it did was strictly to property. Many residents here said Thursday that they were at least grateful that only a few lives had been lost and a few people had been hurt, but for many the hardships from the storm have only just begun.

Town officials said it could take at least a week to restore electrical power :o everyone; there were long lines at the few stores in the area selling ice and no gas station for about 30 miles had pumps that worked.

By afternoon, many business owners had returned to see their property in ruins. At Destin's Lucky Snapper grill and bar, which has a beautiful waterfront view and space to seat 650 patrons, the second floor dining room had collapsed onto the first floor and was struck by several boats that the hurricane had flung from the harbor. One of the boats belonged to a restaurant owner.

Due to technical difficulties with The Washington Post/Los Angeles Times Wire News Service, today's issue of The Tech contains an abbreviated version of the World & Nation section.