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Florida Braces For Cover As Hurricane Earl Lashes Away

By Mike Clary
Los Angeles Times
MIAMI

Schools and airports were closed, tourists went home and the residents of Gulf Coast barrier islands were urged to flee inland as blustery Hurricane Earl sloshed ashore Wednesday over the Florida Panhandle.

With top winds estimated at 100 miles an hour, the season's fourth named storm was a welterweight as hurricanes go, with more potential to unleash flooding than to flatten homes. Satellite photos also showed that Earl was a poorly defined, lopsided storm, with almost all of its heavy weather to the east and north of an ill-defined center.

Nonetheless, Earl lashed the Florida Gulf Coast with heavy rains through the day and threatened to overwhelm fragile barrier islands that are just above high tide. A storm surge of 8 feet above high tide and as much as 10 inches of rain are possible, forecasters said.

The ragged eye of Hurricane Earl was expected to pass over the coast late Wednesday or early Thursday near Panama City and move to the northeast. Although winds are likely to diminish, the storm is expected to spread heavy rains into Georgia and the Carolinas over the next two or three days, forecasters said.

"What we are really concerned about is the storm surge and tremendous rains," said Gov. Lawton Chiles in declaring a state of emergency in three Panhandle counties. "Of course, if the storm did stall, it could intensify and become a much more dangerous storm."

Tornado warnings were posted for several counties in north and central Florida.

Eglin Air Force Base sent 30 fighter jets to Oklahoma for safety. Roads leading away from the coast were thick with traffic, and shoppers jammed stores to snatch up candles, batteries and bottled water.

At the Shell station on Panama City Beach, frantic customers snapped up $5,000 worth of supplies, including gasoline, bread, milk and water, during the day, double normal sales. But as night fell and the wind picked up, clerk Shirley Lee said business just died.

"It's blowing and raining pretty good right now," she said. "I guess everyone's afraid to come out."

Lee said station management canceled the third shift and ordered her to close at 10 p.m. This is my first hurricane," Lee said. "I moved here about three years ago from Iowa. But I just live across the street, so I can walk home."

Although hurricane warnings were posted for 320 miles of coastline, from Pascagoula, Miss., to just south of Tallahassee, the state capital, most evacuations were voluntary. Mandatory evacuations were ordered, however, for barrier island communities along Apalachee Bay.

"We've taken the awnings down, and given our guests maps of the emergency routes out of town, in case mandatory evacuations are called for," said Karen Terrell, marketing director for the 700-room Resort at Sandestin in Destin, as winds picked up and horizontal rains swept the area. With only 40 percent of the rooms occupied, Terrell said many resort employees also have been allowed to go home to get ready.

What had been a diffuse area of turbulent weather in the Gulf of Mexico gave birth first to Tropical Storm Earl, which grew to hurricane strength early Wednesday. National Hurricane Center forecasters had earlier predicted the storm would make landfall west of New Orleans.