On the morning of September 16, 2004, Hurricane Ivan was no longer a local story. NPR led its newscasts that morning with updates about the storm damage and loss of life.
Earlier, at 1:50am, Hurricane Ivan made landfall at Gulf Shores, Alabama. By then it had already killed 67 people in the Caribbean including 39 in Grenada and 17 in Jamaica. Escambia County was hit by the eastern edge of the storm, the most dangerous part of any Atlantic hurricane.
Ron McNesby, the Escambia County Sherriff in 2004, spoke to the media some 16 hours after the storm hit and said that he has traveled over much of the county during the day and said "you will go no-place that you don't see what happened (here) last night". McNesby also said he toured the beaches by helicopter and the damage there was at least "three times as bad as (the damage from Hurricane) Opal".
At about the same time in Tallahassee, Governor Jeb Bush was giving his first briefing since the storm hit, saying that as of 7:30 that morning Gulf Power reported 338,928 customers were without power. That represented about 80% of all Gulf Power customers. Bush also reported damage to hospitals in Pensacola including Baptist, West Florida and Sacred Heart; but he said hospitals in the Panama City area were for the most part undamaged. The Governor also urged residents to stay in place, warning that the storm was still out there and that many deaths often occur after a storm has passed.
And indeed within a week there would be five more storm related deaths on the Panhandle. Those fatalities would bring the death toll from Ivan in Northwest Florida to 13, with more reported in Alabama. And as the winds and rains began to lessen during the day the extent of the damage was beginning to sink in. Gulf Breeze Police Chief Peter Paulding, speaking with WUWF News on the 16th reported on the status of the area's bridges, saying all of the bridges in the area were damaged by the storm. He said the bridge over Interstate 10 "both east and west bound lanes have collapsed, 25 sections of it in one portion of it collapsed". He also said the Bob Sikes Bridge collapsed in one section and was impassable. He also said "the Garcon Point Bridge is severely eroded from wave action at the north end and is impassable". He warned residents who had evacuated that it was not yet possible to safely return to the area. The chief also reminded residents who stayed that there was a 24 hour curfew in effect.
That was also the message from Ashley Chisholm, a public safety spokesperson for Escambia County, who said "pretty much the entire county (is) without power. Sewer system down. No water, or very limited water. We have major and in some cases catastrophic damage to the transmission and distribution lines and one of the generating plants of Gulf Power as well as their operating facilities". She emphasized that one of the most important things was for people to stay off the roads so rescue and damage assessment operations could continue.
It was about the time that National Guard troops began arriving to assist with recovery efforts. Lt. Colonel Ron Tittle spoke for the Florida National Guard and said they had 1,700 troops hunkered down in Tallahassee at the Civic Center and the Fairgrounds riding out the storm over night, as well as other stationed in various locations around the Panhandle. The first convoys left the capital early that morning.
And towards the end of that first day, as the initial shock subsided and agencies and citizens switched to recovery mode, Michael Hardin, Chief of the Division of Emergency Management for Escambia County, summed up September 16, 2004 saying, simply, "it was a very busy day". He said search and rescue operations would continue into the night and the next day, as well as debris removal and damage assessment.
The next few days, weeks and even months would see a massive rebuilding effort take hold on the Florida panhandle. Escambia County Administrator George Touart perhaps summed up everyone's feeling best saying "We will recover...that's what Escambia County does, that's what the state of Florida does...we will be bigger and better than we ever were before".
Taking a look at what grew from the shadow of Hurricane Ivan...many would say the late Mr Touart nailed it.
(Tomorrow Part 3 - Cleaning Up and Moving On)