Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Opal's Legacy: Destruction Wind, Sea Flattened Buildings

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Opal's Legacy: Destruction Wind, Sea Flattened Buildings

Article excerpt

State officials got their first close look Friday at the barrier islands that were the hardest hit by Hurricane Opal and saw a bleak sandscape of splintered homes and flattened dunes.

Property owners were kept away for fear of injuries from still-crumbling buildings. When they are permitted to return, perhaps today, they won't find much left.

Some homes were leveled, others remained standing but gutted by the sea. In some skeletons of buildings, a few remnants remained untouched: a dresser with a lamp, clothes hanging on a line.

National Guardsmen escorted Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and reporters through the wind- and sea-torn beachfront at Navarre and Pensacola beaches, while helicopters and a few gulls floated above the now calm gulf.

i Only two months ago, the area was hit by Hurricane Erin, but Opal was much worse. It killed 18 people and damage is estimated at $1.8 billion, making it one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history.

Floridians are wondering what's next. "This makes us much more vulnerable to the next storm," said a grim-faced Chiles.

As the line of Humvees chugged slowly across the bridge that arches over the Santa Rosa Sound to Pensacola Beach, a Guardsman summed up what had happened to this barrier island:

"People who didn't have beachfront property do now."

Less than 48 hours earlier, Opal flung herself with a vengeance on the Florida Panhandle, wrecking pricey oceanfront homes and pushing tons of white sand over them and beyond.

While radio ads by insurance companies exhorted listeners to call their agents to assess damage, police and Guardsmen were keeping many residents out, and some homeowners were infuriated.

"Everything I own is on that beach," fumed Lorraine Brown, who has a home on Pensacola Beach. "There's nothing in the Constitution that says anybody can make you leave your home!"

Police said they needed to barricade the islands to prevent injuries from unsafe structures and leaking gas.

Police also are concerned about looters; some looters had been arriving at night on Jet Skis to steal items from the buildings that Opal had bared, police say. By Friday night, police arrested 14 people on looting charges in the Panama City Beach area.

A 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was expected to remain in effect over the weekend.

Many residents also were angry about what they said were inadequate escape routes from the beaches.

Bill Bruton, who left his home in Navarre at 7 a.m. Wednesday, said it took him nearly five hours to drive 60 miles on the jammed highways leading inland. Others who left later were unable to get away soon enough and were forced to weather the storm in temporary shelters when it hit about 6 that evening.

"They've got to do something about getting out of here," Bruton said.

But for now, the question is whether to return - and when. …

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