PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — The white sand beaches of this resort community are usually filled with families and children strolling and playing in the surf. But on Tuesday, they were empty as the Panhandle prepared for what could be a strong lashing from Hurricane Ivan.
A mandatory evacuation order is in effect for all visitors, business owners and residents here. Similar orders are in place throughout Florida’s Panhandle as well as in neighboring coastal regions of Louisiana and Mississippi.
More than a half million people are affected by those evacuations. Schools are closed, local governments are shut down, and hotels are asking tourists to pack up and check out.
Heeding past lessons learned
There was little resistance here to the order and most people have left already or are now one their way. Some say they are heeding the lessons learned by other Floridians after hurricanes Charlie and Frances took their toll.
“I don’t want anyone else to get hurt, either, but I’m just praying it’s not us,” said Panama City Beach Mayor Lee Sullivan.
Sullivan was the police chief in this resort community when Hurricane Opal made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane in October of 1995.
While the eye of that storm came ashore in Pensacola, 60 miles west of here, Panama City took a brutal beating from the northeast side of the hurricane. Hotels were leveled and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed.Slideshow: Following Ivan
“It brought us to our knees,” said Sullivan. The community spent millions rebuilding its trademark beaches after Opal.
Building materials at risk
The building continues in Panama City Beach, and that’s an issue with Ivan on the way.
No fewer than a dozen high-rise condominium towers are being built along the beach.
Along with the construction comes tons of building materials, some of which are not secure. Plywood, steel beams and port-a-potties could become dangerous flying objects with help from hurricane force winds.
There are also a dozen tower cranes erected, some stretching hundreds of feet into the air.
Authorities are less worried about those, as they are built to withstand winds in excess of 200 miles per hour. Still, there is no knowing how terrible Ivan might be when it hits landfall in the next couple of days.
Getting out of town
Most are opting not to find out. Jackie Renfrow took a walk along the nearly deserted beach with her daughter Tuesday, but it is the last one she’ll take this week.
“I’m getting out,” said Renfrow. “We were hit when Opal hit, and it was devastating. Absolutely devastating.”
Renfrow’s husband waited it out in their home last time. “He says he never wants to see another,” said Renfrow.
The t-shirt shops, restaurants and souvenir stands which line the beach road in Panama City are covered by plywood. In many cases, the boards are numbered so business owners know which windows each board belongs to, in case they need to be used again.
After hurricanes Charlie and Frances took an economic swipe at other parts of Florida, many Panhandle communities are getting their turn.
Even though this is the slow season for beach resorts, there are still visitors who left early or saw Ivan heading to the Panhandle and canceled their trip.
Business owners say there is no way to recover those losses, which could total hundreds of millions of dollars. Hotels along the beach are telling callers they don’t know when they’ll reopen.
As one of the last families vacationing in Panama City Beach loaded their cars with luggage, beach toys and coolers, they told hotel workers they will definitely make a return trip here. And, they are hopeful their favorite beach looks exactly the same when they do.
Janet Shamlian is an NBC news correspondent, based in Dallas.