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Hurricane Opal devastates Fla. Gulf Coast 15 reported killed in 4 states; at least $1.8 billion in damages


PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. -- In the bright glare of the day after, the devastation seemed all too clear: Homes and motels swept into the sea, cars flipped like bathtub toys and buried in sand, tall condominiums undermined, essential bridges to populated barrier islands washed out.

Hurricane Opal, today just a rainy clot of clouds cruising across Canada, carved a costly trail of death and destruction along a 140-mile stretch of Florida's Gulf Coast when it crashed ashore Wednesday with 125-mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge.

"The situation is disastrous," said Reid Silverboard, city manager of Fort Walton Beach. His city of 25,000 once again was without potable water and electricity.

This latest calamity killed 15 people -- one in Florida, seven in Georgia, six in Alabama and one in North Carolina. After a preliminary survey, the Florida Insurance Council estimated that Opal inflicted $1.8 billion in damage to insured property in the state.

Some of the worst hit cities: Panama City Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Navarre Beach, Destin. Fearing looters, worried about damaged roads and bridges, police prevented most island residents from returning home.

Seventy percent of the buildings in Destin were demolished or damaged. Torrents of water shoved trees to the ground. Smashed cars littered the landscape.

Throughout the region, amid piles of debris, wrecked buildings and felled trees, relief workers and reporters discovered images of a vicious storm .

In Destin, five chairs and a table floated away from a condominium and landed at a Coast Guard station a mile away. There, they were found in perfect order, the chairs around the table, as though the occupants just finished a meal.

Authorities said Opal left more than 2 million customers without power in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas. It could take weeks to restore electricity.

For much of Maryland, a tornado watch was in effect until 4 a.m. today. A tornado was detected by Doppler radar near Clinton, in Prince Geroge's County, last night, according to the National Weather Service, but there were no immediate reports of damage.

Extremely heavy rain associated with Opal did not materialize in Western Maryland yesterday as forecasters had feared, but some sites received about 2 inches. Most other areas of the state, including Baltimore, received about an inch of rain, said Jose Marrero, a weather service meteorologist. "They were good soaking rainfalls," Mr. Marrero said. Partly sunny conditions, with temperatures in the mid- to upper 80s, were expected in Baltimore and the surrounding region today.

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