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Hurricane Ivan Makes Landfall Early Thursday, Killing 11 in Southeast

September 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: For a view from Alabama I’m joined by James Walker, the state’s homeland security director. Director Walker, welcome. Where is Ivan, and how long is he likely to be over Alabama?

JAMES WALKER: Well, he’s in central Alabama right now, getting ready to clobber Birmingham. And then he’ll continue to move north. And he should be somewhere out of our state early tomorrow morning.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they say that once they don’t have the power source of ocean waters anymore, storms start to weaken. Has that happened with Hurricane Ivan?

JAMES WALKER: Well, I think she’s been downgraded to a tropical storm. We’re still seeing winds in excess of 50, 60 miles and hour here in Montgomery. A little more brisk in the north towards Birmingham, and it will continue to move out of the state. It is downgrading somewhat.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it still dumping a lot of water on Alabama?

JAMES WALKER: It is. It’s kind of interesting. It’s going to affect the entire state. You know, our coastal areas got hit really hard last night, early this morning. They’re peeking their heads up now and assessing the damage. South Baldwin County along the Gulf Coast has been devastated.

We have lost buildings and bridges, and a lot of devastation down there. Mobile County was hit pretty bad. It could have been worse. It’s moved up through central and western Alabama, and is now hitting Birmingham and will continue out of the state. So we’ll be able to pick our heads up here in central Alabama in the next few hours and assess the damage. But I’ve seen a lot of trees down, faces off of buildings.

But in Alabama, we’ve done some… pretty interesting, we made some early decisions a couple days ago. And quite frankly, the governor was criticized for evacuating mobile and Baldwin Counties, and for reverse laning on I-65, but I think that decision has paid off for us. I mean, we recognize we can rebuild buildings and repave roads, but we can’t replace a human life, and we’ve been very fortunate in Alabama thus far in that we have no reported fatalities.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how many people are out of their home, a rough count, and when do you think it will be safe for them to go back?

JAMES WALKER: A lot of folks have left their homes and they’re in hotels and they’re safe. We’ve got over 13,000 citizens in 139 shelters around the state. We currently have about 800,000 of our 4.5 million citizens without electric power as the storm moves through the state.

We anticipate that we’ll have more folks without power as the storm moves throughout the state. The good news is our federal partners are have been very good to us. FEMA is here in the state. They’re pushing 67 large generators into the state.

We’ve got other push packs of supplies going down range. But, you know, at the end of the day, we’ve got folks in our communities that have rolled up their sleeve, the public safety community, and they’re doing yeoman work for the citizens of this state.

RAY SUAREZ: When a storm is so big and it’s taking so long to move on from the state, does it also slow down your ability to start catching up on these essential services, start getting trucks out on to the roads to clear roads? Is the fact that Ivan is moving so slowly hampering your ability to get Alabama up and running again?

JAMES WALKER: Well, it does have some impact. We’ve got tractor trailers full of comfort kits that are sitting in safe areas just waiting to be pushed down to the coastal counties. We’ve got assets as far back as Little Rock, Arkansas, that came from the West Coast that still need to be pushed down into the state. And we are just waiting on a safe word get them in.

You know, this really has been a national team effort. Our federal partners are really assisting us. Governor Bob Riley has shown great, great leadership in the state. All the state departments are working together, and the locals down in the trenches are really doing a good job.

And our citizens are paying attention. I mean, this is preparedness month in the nation. We had a “be ready” day in Alabama last Friday. I think people in Alabama are paying attention, and we’ve kept folks out of harm’s way thus far.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it still dangerous for people when they go home in the next day or two?

JAMES WALKER: Well, after the storm moves out, with the power lines may still be on the ground. We have several counties right now with flash-flood warnings in effect. We’ve had 11 tornadoes around the state. We’ve got a few tornado warnings and watches around the state.

So we’re far from being out of this. We’re asking citizens to stay put. By an large, they are. That’s why we’ve been successful thus far in protecting life. And we just hope that that trade continues. And we just appreciate the local, state and national effort that is going to get Alabama through this storm.

RAY SUAREZ: James Walker, Alabama’s homeland security director, thanks for being with us.

JAMES WALKER: Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, joining us by phone from Pensacola, Florida, one of the hardest-hit areas, is James Dao of the New York Times. James, welcome. Just a short time ago Governor Jeb Bush said Pensacola took the brunt of the storm. Give us the damage assessment.

JAMES DAO: Ray, as I have been driving around Pensacola today, you can see fairly severe damage almost everywhere. It’s very spread out across the city. There’s power lines down in many, many places, trees snapped in half, large oak trees completely uprooted and blocking side streets.

Many roofs have been partly damaged or completely torn off. In many places you see light stanchion, big, tall steel girders that have just been literally bent in half and are resting against roofs of buildings. A section of the downtown area has been flooded as well. And while it’s not a big section, it’s causing traffic tie-ups right in the center of the city.

So while there’s no… the damage isn’t extremely severe in any particular place– and it doesn’t look like it’s been hit by a cyclone– there is a lot of damage, and it is so widespread it’s, I’m sure, going to add up to a very costly bill.

RAY SUAREZ: Was Pensacola’s geography, being a coastal place and a low-lying place, did that make it very prone to flooding?

JAMES DAO: I think what caused… what was the major reason for damage here was that it was a bit to the east of the eye of the storm. And the way it works is the eye of the storm came up a little bit west of the Florida/Alabama border.

And the east, as hurricane watchers know, the northeast quadrant of a hurricane very often is the hardest hit because the hurricane is cycling in that direction. And I think that’s what happened with Pensacola. It was a little bit off to the center of the storm, but it was on the deadly eastern portion of the center of the storm.

And that meant it got a lot of very heavy winds. And what I see here is heavily wind damage. The wind caused a tidal surge that pushed water back up and resulted in the flooding. And you can just see there’s just wind damage everywhere. There’s hardly a block where a sign hasn’t been ripped off or broken in half, and windows are blown in. It’s clearly the result of just the powerful 130-mile-an-hour winds.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the latest on the dead and injured in the area?

JAMES DAO: Well, that’s kind of one of the remarkable side parts of the story– actually, not a side part, it’s an important part of it — that there… so far there are no deaths attributed in Pensacola itself to the storm. There was an elderly person who had a heart attack, I believe, but they haven’t said that is definitely because of the storm. And there have been some injuries, but none of them major. And so they are feeling very fortunate.

It appears that a lot of people in the some of the most hard-hit coastal areas were cautious and did go to shelters well in advance of the storm. And that may have something to do with the lack of casualties.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Florida safety officials are telling people now to stay home if they are home, to not get out on the roads. In the part of Florida that you’ve been traveling in, are they taking that advice?

JAMES DAO: They are absolutely not taking that advice. I was just told that not only are they not telling people not get on the roads, but there actually is a curfew in effect, a 24-hour curfew in effect, in Pensacola.

But I’m sitting in a parking lot near a busy intersection and there are dozens of cars pulling up. There’s no working traffic light, so they’re kind of crossing very gingerly. But the roads are packed with people who are trying to get back and survey the damage and start the clean-up.

RAY SUAREZ: And James, before we go, is it still raining there?

JAMES DAO: It has finally stopped raining. It’s sort of adding insult to injury to the day. It was quite blustery and it rained much of the day, but the sun actually broke through about an hour ago. It’s clouded up once again, but it at least is not raining.

RAY SUAREZ: James Dao of the New York Times joining us from Pensacola. Thanks for being with us.

JAMES DAO: Thank you.