Hurricane Ivan is lashing the Gulf Coast of the southeastern United States with high winds and heavy rain. The center of the storm is expected to come ashore along the Florida-Alabama border early Thursday morning, becoming the third hurricane to strike Florida in the past month. Ivan, which killed more than 60 people in the Caribbean, could be the strongest storm to strike the southeastern U.S. in more than 20 years.
Hurricane Ivan could produce a storm surge approaching five meters at some points along the low-lying Gulf Coast of the states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
President Bush on Wednesday spoke with the governors of the Gulf Coast states to assess emergency response measures by the federal government.
Authorities ordered highways turned into northbound only routes and urged more than two million people to move inland. Residents of the city of New Orleans, which lies below sea-level, were urged to leave the city as the storm approached, although forecasters said late Wednesday New Orleans would not suffer a direct hit from Ivan. Authorities were taking no chances, imposing a dusk to dawn curfew.
Ivan could be the strongest storm to strike Alabama since 1979, when Hurricane Frederic devastated southern Alabama. Governor Bob Riley urged the citizens of his state to look out for each other as the storm moved ashore.
"You know one of the things Alabamians are famous for, it is part of our Alabamian legacy, is that we always take care of our neighbors,? he said. ?What I want to encourage everyone out there in the general population today to do is talk to your neighbor. If you know of an elderly person, go by and check on them. If you need some help with a special needs person call this office and let us know. This is something we will all have to work together on."
Ivan devastated the island of Grenada, and caused heavy destruction in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. The storm largely spared Cuba, where it caused some flooding in coastal areas but missed the capital, Havana.
Ivan is the strongest hurricane yet of the 2004 season, one of the most active years for hurricane activity in recent memory. The storm's hurricane force winds extend outward more than 150 kilometers.
William Gray, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University and one of the world's leading hurricane experts, says Ivan has fluctuated in strength ever since it formed, but overall it has remained an extremely strong storm.
"It was a very intense storm, a category five on a scale of one to five, or three different periods and then a category four,? he said. ?It was fluctuating back and forth there. The pressure was down to the fourth or fifth lowest pressure that has ever been measured by planes going into the center."
While Ivan is the strongest storm yet of the 2004 season, it is certainly not the last. Tropical Storm Jeanne brought heavy rains and flooding to Puerto Rico on Wednesday. Forecasters say Jeanne will likely strengthen as it moves toward the Bahamas. They say the storm could threaten the east coast of Florida within days.