Gordon Sloshes Ashore, Drenching Florida

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Sunday September 17 9:19 PM ET

Gordon Sloshes Ashore, Drenching Florida


By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - Weak and wet, Tropical Storm Gordon slogged ashore in a sparsely populated area of northwest Florida on Sunday, drenching the state with torrential rains and a powerful storm surge that flooded low-lying coastal areas.

Gordon, a hurricane for much of the day as it hurtled across the Gulf of Mexico toward landfall on Florida's Gulf Coast, lost some steam as the leading edge of its eye crossed the coast at the ``Big Bend,'' where 280,000 people were ordered to evacuate.

The storm was expected to weaken further as it moved over north Florida on a track that will take it along the coasts of Georgia and both South and North Carolina during the next two days.

``It's pretty beat up. It should be winding down as it moves ashore,'' National Hurricane Center storm specialist Stacy Stewart said. Gordon lashed Florida with 70 mph winds and up to eight inches of rain in some areas. State emergency managers said flooding was reported in low-lying coastal areas from Fort Myers to Cedar Key, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Tampa, where the eye went ashore.

It threatened to do its worst at flood-prone Cedar Key, a resort off Florida's west coast that is no stranger to hurricanes. Residents shuttered and boarded up many of the town's rustic 1920s-era wood buildings along the waterfront before moving to higher ground.

``Ain't no people around here. Everybody's left,'' one businessman told reporters as he put the final touches on his storm preparations.

Officials warned that flooding from the storm surge and rain remained a big threat and Gordon could also spawn tornadoes. But other damage could be minimal, they said.

``At the present we do not have any reports of deaths or injuries,'' said David Bruns, a spokesman for the Florida Emergency Management center.

Gordon played havoc across Florida on Sunday. Wind, rain and battering waves lashed the Gulf Coast, inundating the Tampa Bay area, one of the state's major population centers. Some flights to Tampa's international airport were canceled and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays-Oakland As baseball game was postponed. The storm dropped eight inches of rain between Lake Okeechobee and Fort Myers in south Florida. Its tail spawned at least one tornado in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, ripping roofs off some mobile homes, but populous Miami was largely spared.

The state was on full alert as Gordon marched across the gulf as a hurricane with 75 mph winds. National Guard troops and emergency teams were primed for action. At Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast, the Kennedy Space Center also battened down in case the storm turned in that direction.

Heart Of Storm Hit Wildlife Refuge

The heart of the storm struck at Cedar Key, a wildlife refuge near the mouth of the Suwannee River, tucked into the coastline's so-called ``Big Bend.'' The mainland in that area, about 60 miles (100 km) southeast of Gainesville, is largely mangrove swamps and small villages.

About 280,000 people were given mandatory evacuation orders from Citrus, Taylor, Hernando, Levy and Franklin counties, the State Emergency Operations Center said. Voluntary evacuations were advised in Pinellas, Sarasota, Hillsborough, Manatee and Dixie counties. Thirty emergency shelters were open and hundreds of people took advantage of them. At 8 p.m. EDT Gordon was plowing northeast at 13 mph, packing winds of 70 mph . Although the front edge of the eye had crossed the coast, its center was about 25 miles (40 km) west-southwest of Cedar Key at latitude 29 north and longitude 83.4 west.

On the Gulf Coast, a tropical storm warning was in effect from Anna Maria Island, near St. Petersburg, to the Indian Pass in the Florida Panhandle.

On the Atlantic coast, a tropical storm warning was in effect from Titusville, Florida, through Georgia to Little River Inlet, South Carolina. A tropical storm watch was in effect from Little River Inlet north to the North Carolina-Virginia border.

The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral was on alert although Gordon was passing north of the facility. NASA decided to leave space shuttle Discovery on the launch pad rather than roll it back to a hangar, a move that would almost certainly delay its Oct. 5 launch.

Rains from Gordon already have caused death and mayhem in Guatemala, where 19 people were killed and more than 50 hurt in recent days. Hundreds of people in the Central American country fled their homes for fear of flooding and landslides.

Gordon is the seventh named storm of the Atlantic storm season. In 1994, another Tropical Storm Gordon triggered landslides that killed about 400 people in Haiti as it steamed through the Caribbean, then killed four in Florida.

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), September 17, 2000

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