It Was No Katrina But Some in Coastal America Remember Ivan’s Terror

September 17, 2009

People who lived through Hurricane Ivan can’t forget the haunting images left by one of the strongest storms ever recorded: condo towers collapsed in roiling surf, splintered homes or flat slabs, fragments of highways lost in a sea of sand. They wish others remembered, too.

Not quite a year after Ivan all but submerged entire Caribbean islands, slammed into the Alabama and Florida coasts, deluged the Eastern Seaboard and looped back for a torrential run through Texas and Louisiana, Katrina set a new standard for hurricane horror. Ivan’s terrible toll — more than $14 billion in damage in the U.S. alone, and nearly 100 dead in all — became an afterthought.

Having flattened miles of resort property and caused flooding and tornadoes throughout the Southeast, Ivan remains the fifth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, a fact long since lost on those who didn’t study it or suffer through it.

“It was enormous, a tremendous storm,” said Anita Williams, whose Gulf Breeze, Florida, home was wiped out by Ivan. She and her husband are still in court fighting for insurance money, though they have rebuilt.

“We kind of got forgotten,” she said.

The experts who track hurricanes remember Ivan for its colossal size and strength.

Born off the west coast of Africa, Ivan was the most powerful hurricane ever to approach the Gulf of Mexico from the Southeast and one of four hurricanes to hit Florida in 2004. It strengthened and weakened in pulses, reaching Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale three times with winds of 155 mph (250 kph) or higher.

“It was a Category 5 storm not once but three times … and Category 5 storms are very rare,” Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said. “If not for (Katrina) in ’05, Ivan and ’04 would be the ones that are remembered.”

Ivan crossed the Caribbean south of Cuba, submerging most of Grenada and Grand Cayman Island, where an estimated 95 percent of the buildings were damaged or destroyed. It made landfall at Gulf Shores on Sept. 16, 2004, as a Category 3 storm with 120-mph (193 kph) winds and a huge surge.

Ivan’s remnants tracked north and turned east, bringing record flooding and power outages as far north as Pennsylvania before curling south through Florida again and hitting the Louisiana-Texas coast as a tropical storm a week after it struck Alabama.

In a precaution that turned out to be a dress rehearsal for Katrina a year later, thousands of people evacuated from the Louisiana coast as Ivan roared north. Hundreds more sheltered in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, which would fail miserably as a shelter of last resort when Katrina flooded the city.

The storm was blamed for 92 deaths by the time it ended: 39 in Grenada; 25 in the United States, including 14 in Florida; 17 in Jamaica; and 11 more total in the Dominican Republican, Venezuela, the Cayman Islands, Tobago and Barbados.

Michael Foley, co-owner of a waterfront restaurant at Pensacola Beach, Florida, said many of his neighbors are frustrated by the way Ivan seems lost in the national consciousness, despite its massive devastation.

“People here do feel forgotten, but they are resilient,” Foley said from his business, Surf Burger. “We are back up and running.”

Ivan left much of Pensacola Beach in rubble. It wrecked a coastal span of Interstate 10 — just as Katrina would do outside New Orleans — and hit Alabama’s Orange Beach hard enough to collapse condominium buildings. Some empty beachfront lots are still littered with storm debris; a few beachfront homes have yet to be fixed.

The cleanup went on for years, leaving debris piles more than three-quarters of a mile long (1.2 kilometers) and 70 feet (21-meter) high around Pensacola.

“We’ve just gotten our last 30 properties cleaned up here this year,” said Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach.

Thousands of brown, broken trees still stand in public areas that were covered by saltwater for days, and Alabama’s state park on the coast has yet to be rebuilt. The rubble of the park’s old hotel and convention center lay on the beach like skeletal remains for months. It was only this summer that the state opened a new park fishing pier to replace the one Ivan destroyed.

Veterinarian Gus Mueller worked at The Zoo of Northwest Florida for 17 years until it shut down recently, a late casualty he lays at Ivan’s feet. The zoo was heavily damaged by the storm and never got back on its feet completely, he said.

“It was a big tourist attraction, certainly an educational thing,” Mueller said of the small facility. “We’re not going to have that anymore.”

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