MOBILE, Ala. Hurricane Ivan and its 135-mph winds churned toward the Gulf Coast with frightening intensity Wednesday, spawning monster waves that toppled beach houses and spinning off tornadoes that killed at least two people.
The storm was expected to make landfall early today near Mobile and could swamp the coastline with a 16-foot storm surge and up to 15 inches of rain. As Ivan finished its menacing advance, it offered a daylong preview of its destruction: sheets of rain across the coast, a series of tornadoes, and escalating winds that knocked out power and made traffic lights whipsaw.
In the Florida Panhandle near Panama City, tornadoes spawned by the storm killed two people and trapped others in the rubble of their damaged homes.
"We have a report from a deputy that it looks like a war zone," said sheriff's spokeswoman Ruth Sasser.
Hurricane-force winds extended out 105 miles from the Category 4 storm, threatening widespread damage no matter where it strikes. After reaching land, Ivan threatened to stall over the Southeast and southern Appalachians, with a potential for as much as 20 inches of rain.
Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, Tropical Storm Jeanne slammed into the U.S. territory Wednesday, flooding neighborhoods, knocking out power and stranding thousands of tourists. At least two people were killed.
Jeanne became the 10th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season Tuesday and was moving west-northwest near 9 mph. The National Hurricane Center said Jeanne could strengthen as it moved into the Atlantic and could become a hurricane by today.
At 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Ivan was centered about 105 miles south of the Alabama coast and was moving north at 14 mph. The storm, which plowed through the Caribbean, has now killed at least 70 people.
Ivan's waves some up to 25 feet were already destroying homes along the Florida coast Wednesday. Twelve-foot waves boomed ashore at Gulf Shores, Ala., eroding the beach. A buoy about 300 miles south of Panama City registered waves over 34 feet high.
In Mobile, majestic live oaks that line the streets swayed in gusting winds as the port city of some 200,000 braced for a hurricane expected to be even more destructive than Frederic, which killed five people 25 years ago.
Mobile bar owner Lori Hunter said her business would remain closed "until the landlord takes the boards down off the windows."
"We're staying," she said. "I'm from New York. This is my first one. Terrorists scare me but not a hurricane."
As the storm drew near, streets along Mississippi's Gulf Coast were all but deserted, and miles of homes and businesses, including its 12 floating casinos, were boarded up.
Only patrol cars and an occasional luggage-packed car or van could be seen passing Gulfport's "Welcome to the Gulf Coast" billboard.
New Orleans scrambled to get people out of harm's way, putting the frail and elderly in the cavernous Louisiana Superdome and urging others to move to higher floors in tall buildings.
Of the roughly 2 million who fled the path of the storm, often in bumper-to-bumper caravans on highways turned into one-way evacuation routes, 1.2 million were from greater New Orleans, a city particularly vulnerable to hurricanes because it sits below sea level, between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
An 11th-hour turn may have spared the bowl-shaped city a direct hit, but officials warned that the levees and pumping stations that normally hold back the water may not be enough to protect the city.
"If we turn up dead tomorrow, it's my fault," said Jane Allinder, who stayed stubbornly behind at her daughter's French Quarter doll shop to keep an eye on her cat.
Police began clearing people off the streets, enforcing a 2 p.m. curfew.
"I think it's safe to say we will have flooding in this city," said Mayor Ray Nagin. However, he contradicted a statement from his emergency preparedness director that the city needed at least 10,000 body bags to handle possible drowning victims.
Thousands of tourists were believed stranded in New Orleans, along with 100,000 mostly inner-city residents without cars. The mayor advised them to resort to "vertical evacuations," suggesting they take shelter in buildings taller than two stories. If that is not possible, he said, they should go into an attic and take equipment with them that would allow them to cut through the roof and get out.
Rick Pfeifer, a salesman from Washougal, Wash., was stuck in New Orleans with no flights out and no cars to rent after arriving earlier this week for a National Safety Congress convention. His storm rations included as many chips, pretzels and bottled water as he could buy.
"I'm going to ride it out in the high-ground area of the city," he said wryly. "Fourth floor in a good hotel, with a good bar."
Frail, elderly and sick residents unable to get out were moved to the 72,000-seat Louisiana Superdome, where 200 cots in upper-deck concourses supplanted the dome's usual tenant, the New Orleans Saints.
LuLinda Williams wept after dropping off her bedridden grandmother, who is on oxygen, at the Superdome. Only one family member was allowed to stay with each patient, so Williams left her daughter.
"I thought they'd let the family stay with them," Williams said. "Where are the rest of us supposed to go now? How are we supposed to know she's OK?"
Nagin later said the dome would also be opened as a one-night last resort for able-bodied storm refugees. The last time that happened during Hurricane Georges in 1998, the 14,000 refugees nearly did more damage than the storm itself. Countless televisions, seat cushions and bar stools were stolen, and workers spent months cleaning graffiti off the walls.
Winds howled across Louisiana's bayous with enough force to topple trees and knock out power.
"We heard a loud pop, and I thought, not already," said Harold Plaisance, who had been sitting on the porch watching the storm in the fishing village of Lafitte.