Weather officials said the eye wall came down just east of Pensacola, Florida. Wind gusts of 144 miles per hour were reported at Hurlburt Field, an Air Force installation in Okaloosa County. The National Hurricane Center said the storm hit land between Navarre Beach and Gulf Breeze on the Florida panhandle about 6:30 p.m. EDT.(366K Quicktime movie)
Opal was downgraded from category four to category three before coming ashore, but forecasters said tornadoes spawned by the dangerous hurricane were likely to develop as the storm moves through Alabama and Georgia.
Pier damage was reported in Panama City Beach, and several homes were washed out at Mexico Beach.
Outer rain bands produced six tornadoes over the Florida panhandle and southern Alabama earlier in the day.
Emergency officials warned that deaths were possible if residents did not flee, and many did, not bothering to board up their homes and businesses.
Roads throughout the Florida panhandle were jammed with traffic. Lieutenant Robert Farrior with the Florida highway patrol confirmed that one man died when a tornado, spawned by the storm, blew over a mobile home near Crestview, Florida. The man was in his 60s.
"Conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that to make an effort to leave Escambia County might put one's life in jeopardy," Farrior said.
Earlier in the day, he reported bottlenecks of traffic, with people trying to escape the Pensacola area in anticipation of the powerful storm. "We certainly have the potential for loss of life with this storm if people don't get out of the way," said Mike Rucker, a meteorologist with the Florida Emergency Management Agency. Early Wednesday he had urged people in the Pensacola and Panama City areas to get out, calling Opal a "monster storm."(187K .aiff sound or 187K .wav sound)
"This is the by far the strongest storm we have seen since Andrew," said Rucker. "It could be even more powerful than Hurricane Camille that hit in 1969."
One forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami was concerned that residents might have been caught off-guard by the approaching storm, and pointed to a possible lack of news coverage, locally.
The Simpson murder trial verdict has consumed a large portion of news media coverage for the last several days. There is also worry that Jews observing Yom Kippur would have missed radio and television announcements regarding Opal.
The forecaster said many residents didn't begin taking the powerful storm seriously until Wednesday morning. Gov. Lawton Chiles called up 3,500 National Guard troops to help with the effects of the storm.
The region is still trying to recover from Hurricane Erin, a category one storm that hit two months ago. Rucker said Opal would continue to inflict damage after it hits the coast. "This storm is so strong that it isn't going to lose its strength once it hits land," he said. "We'll see a lot of damage inland."
Flash flood watches were issued for Alabama and Georgia as areas as far north as Atlanta received rainfall amounts of 6 to 10 inches.
Hurricane force winds could be felt 145 miles from the center. Tropical force winds extended 260 miles from the center and were worst on the eastern edge of the storm. At Grand Isle, Louisiana, lying west of the storm's path, winds were clocked at more than 60 mph. In New Orleans, 40 mph winds were recorded.
Hurricane warnings were in effect from south of Anclote Key on the west coast of Florida to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Hurricane Andrew, a category four storm, hit south Florida and then Louisiana in August of 1992, killing 14 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Hurricane Camille, a category five hurricane, hit Mississippi and Louisiana in August of 1969, killing 256 people and causing damage in the millions.
This is the first category four storm to hit the Gulf Coast in the month of October since Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
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