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On the Gulf Coast, in Ivan's Tracks


Published: October 1, 2004

Greg Friedler for The New York Times
BEACHEDĘ On the Alabama coast at Gulf Shores on Sept. 23, a week after Ivan's landfall.

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New Orleans (La)


National Parks, Monuments and Seashores

FOUR weeks ago, when I took a leisurely Gulf Coast trip from New Orleans to the Florida Panhandle, vacationers were body surfing in warm waves near the beach pier in Pensacola, Fla. At the Gulf Islands National Seashore nearby, a three-foot-tall great blue heron walked unconcerned through gently waving sea oats and past tourists waiting on the beach to watch the sunset.

Last week, when I retraced the same route, Pensacola's concrete pier still stood, battered after being washed over by waves in Hurricane Ivan that offshore buoys recorded at 50 feet. But the road to the national seashore, one of the most popular tourist areas on this coast, lay buried under ruined houses and four-foot piles of sand.

Exuberant children and relaxed adults smile out of millions of souvenir photos taken every year on the white beaches of the Florida Panhandle and nearby coastal Alabama. This winter season, the returning vacationers will find favorite spots turned into construction zones as roofs are repaired and boardwalks rebuilt. Where Ivan hit hardest, some landmarks have been simply swept away, with beaches eroded and streets stripped of buildings.

"Our beach house — it's a washout," said Cathy Tanner, a longtime Pensacola-area resident who sells real estate. "It's 9.6 feet above sea level, and this is the first time this house has ever had water wash through."

The damage in Pensacola and in the Alabama towns of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Dauphin Island is jaw-dropping, with beaches disappearing into the sea and empty stretches where million-dollar houses stood. A part of Laguna Key, a community at the western end of Gulf Shores, has been turned into an island.

I drove east into the storm's aftermath, taking United States Route 90 from New Orleans. At first I saw less damage than I had expected after apocalyptic newscasts about Ivan's arrival. In Bay St. Louis, Miss., an arts colony and favorite getaway for residents of New Orleans, Da Beach House, a funky beachside kayak shop and coffeehouse restaurant, was open as usual, apparently unharmed. The owners, Todd and Colleen Read, said that they hoped baseless fears of damage from Ivan wouldn't keep away the hordes expected in the next couple of weeks for Cruisin' the Coast, a huge local car show.

On a sultry night, the Reads were sitting on the deck of Dock of the Bay, a waterfront restaurant on Bay Street, with Jerry Fisher, the owner and the former lead singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears. His restaurant, too, was unharmed. "The damage doesn't really start till Mobile," Mr. Fisher said.

When I got to Alabama, I saw trees down and a few windows out in Mobile, but restaurants like Felix's Fish Camp, which serves some of the best crab cakes in the country, were bustling. It was close to Gulf Shores that the worst of Ivan began to show. Mobile homes and pecan groves were in ruins.

Along Alabama Route 59, Lucy Buffett, a restaurateur whose brother, the singer Jimmy Buffett, helped her get into the business several years ago, surveyed the spot along the Intracoastal Waterway where her restaurant's open-air bar and dock used to be. They were smashed by a 397-foot runaway barge that the hurricane ripped from its moorings. Despite the loss, Ms. Buffett's restaurant, LuLu's Sunset Grille, was open and had given 700 free cheeseburgers to relief workers.

The damaged tourist businesses would rebuild, she said. "We are coastal people who love the water, and we're willing to forgive Mother Nature's impudence one more time."

To cross the Dr. W. C. Holmes bridge into Gulf Shores was to enter a militarized zone, with Humvees parked on the streets and heavily armed guardsmen directing traffic. A group of owners anxious to see what had happened to their beach houses gratefully climbed onto a six-wheel-drive troop transport truck provided by the National Guard.

Among them were the Howards of Dallas — Mary Francis, Tom and their son Billy, who have spent summers at Gulf Shores since 1981. Just this year the elder Howards had been approached with two offers to buy their house for more than $1 million. "We said, `No, don't be silly, why would we sell it?' " Mrs. Howard said. "Now, my husband is saying, `I told you we should have sold it.' But even if we lose everything and don't even have a lot to sell, this place has been worth it."

As the transport rumbled toward Beach Boulevard, the passengers gaped in amazement. The ocean had submerged a substantial swath of land, the popular Gulf Shores Seafood Market was gutted, and the famously tacky Souvenir City, with a huge shark out front, was destroyed. Across from the city beach, the town's landmark 1960's-era amusement park, with a Tilt-a-Whirl and a Scrambler, lay half buried by sand and utterly ruined. "This was our grandkids' favorite place," Mrs. Howard sighed.

The transport made its way west, along a section of road where some houses had been ripped from their foundations and were simply gone. Others had been carried across the street and smashed.

A few miles farther on, Mrs. Howard let out a cheer. Her family's stilted house was standing, though with no stairs and about 100 yards less of beach out front.

Another passenger in the transport, Rob Jaeger, a real estate agent, was registering that his home, too, was still standing. Asked if he thought this destruction would cool off a local real estate market in which 100 feet of beachfront property fetches $1.7 million, he shook his head. "I just got a call from a guy in Atlanta who wants to buy right now," he said.

From Gulf Shores, Pensacola is a 40-mile trip along Route 98. On the outskirts, poorly built commercial buildings were blown open. But downtown, in the Seville Historic District, where the earliest structures date back to the 1700's, most of the Creole, Greek Revival and Victorian homes and shops appeared to have survived.

On the approach to the famous Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay, police directed traffic past the long-abandoned Highway 98 bridge. A month earlier, this rusty relic had been lined with anglers using it as a vast idyllic fishing pier. Now, long stretches of the bridge were at the bottom of Pensacola Bay.

At Pensacola's public beach and pier, a makeshift relief center was offering disaster counseling, water and packaged military meals.

A beleaguered-looking group had just returned from assessing the remains of their houses in the Villa Sabine neighborhood. Among them were Thomas Campanella, a board member of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, which governs Pensacola Beach, and his daughter Lauren. "The house is at six feet of elevation and we had 42 inches of water in it," Mr. Campanella said. "It's phenomenal that we've had this kind of damage."

He estimated that 99 percent of the buildings in the area had sustained some kind of damage, and that 40 to 45 percent had been destroyed or damaged catastrophically. Although visitors will certainly be welcome again by next summer, he said, it will be five years before it is possible to visit Pensacola Beach and see no signs of Ivan.

Living on this coast, is "a percentage game," Mr. Campanella said, adding, "We've been out here for 30 years and have dodged all these storms."

"We'll rebuild," his daughter said. "It's just the price you pay for living in paradise."

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