PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Rather than roll the dice on where 160-mile-per-hour Hurricane Ivan might strike, Gulf Coast residents from Florida's Panhandle to the bayous of Louisiana spent yesterday boarding up their houses, tying up their boats, and making plans to evacuate.
''I'm getting the hell out of here. This thing's too big," charter boat captain Jerry Weber said as he steered his 41-foot vessel up the Apalachicola River out of harm's way. ''It doesn't matter where it comes ashore, not at this size."
The Category 5 hurricane, difficult to predict and one of the most powerful to hit the Caribbean, killed at least 68 people in a devastating run through Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. The storm was headed toward Cuba yesterday.
Emergency officials in several Florida Panhandle counties were expected to decide yesterday whether to order evacuations from fishing villages and beach communities in advance of a storm that could hit as early as tomorrow. Already, the military bases in the region flew some 275 aircraft out of the area.
At 5 p.m. EDT, Ivan was centered 30 miles south of the western tip of Cuba and was headed toward the northwest at nearly 9 miles per hour. It had also grown, with hurricane-force winds extending 115 miles from the eye.
Although some forecasters predicted some weakening over the cooler waters of the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield said Ivan would still be ''very formidable."
''It's going to hit somebody," he warned. ''This is a very, very dangerous hurricane."
On Pensacola Beach, Mark Sigler and his son stacked sandbags across the driveway of their steel-reinforced dome house that is supposedly designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. They were not sticking around to find out.
''It's stupid to stay unless you like camping in a disaster area," he said. ''There's no reason to be out here."
At times along its wobbly path, forecasters had predicted Ivan could make direct hits on either the Florida Keys or populous South Florida, only to see it veer west and sidestep both areas.
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama residents had thought they were in the clear, until Ivan shifted over the weekend and put them in the possible path.
''I'm not going to stay and wait and see if it's scary," Molly Dupont said in Orange Beach, Ala., as she got ready to head for a sister's home in Ohio.
Along Mississippi's 75-mile-long coastline, which has been remade in recent years by splashy gambling houses, managers of some floating casinos allowed employees time off to get their houses secured. But the gambling never stopped.
In the New Orleans area, which is largely below sea level and extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, Lynn Harrington filled her grocery cart with plenty of water, bleach, duct tape, and canned tuna and beans. ''My boyfriend says that if you have cigarettes, toilet paper, and lots of booze, you can trade for everything you need," she said.
Theresa Vegas, manager of Sand Dollar Motel on the barrier island town of Grand Isle, La., said her husband and other shrimpers started bringing in their boats.
In Florida, Ivan's final run has only added to the anxiety in a state that has already endured Hurricanes Charley and Frances in the past month alone. The last time Florida was hit by three hurricanes in a single season was 1964.
Cedar Key, an island in an area where the Florida Peninsula turns into the Panhandle, has been either in the path or in the evacuation zone for the two previous storms and has not been ruled out as a target for Ivan. At Fishbonz Chowder House, one of only two restaurants open in Cedar Key, paramedic Michel DuMont said she was not going to take her plywood down from her doors and windows until after Ivan ran its course. ''Frances was ugly, but Ivan is mean," she said.