PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. – Apprehensive coastal residents from Florida's Panhandle to Louisiana prepared to flee from massive Hurricane Ivan, which has entered the Gulf of Mexico (search) and is on a collision course with the Gulf Coast.
Five Florida counties urged or, in some cases, ordered residents to leave Tuesday as Ivan spun out of the Caribbean, where it cut a deadly swath through Grenada, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cuba.
Even in New Orleans, 300 miles west of Panama City (search), Mayor Ray Nagin suggested residents to "seek higher ground."
Forecasters said Ivan's bands of winds and rain may begin coming ashore as early as Wednesday. Which location would take the Category 5 storm's hardest hit, though, remained anyone's guess.
At DeBubba and JoJo's Karaoke Kafe I in Panama City Beach, revelers were invited to a hurricane party. "We're going to have it," said disc jockey Charles Stover, "until they run us out of here."
At 5 a.m. Tuesday, Ivan's top sustained winds were measured at 160 mph, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The storm was centered about 85 miles northwest of the western tip of Cuba, or about 545 miles south of Pensacola. It was moving toward the northwest at 9 mph.
The storm, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the Caribbean, has so far been blamed for at least 68 deaths. It swept past Cuba's western tip Monday, drenching farm fields while simultaneously sending 20-foot waves toward shore.
Panhandle residents, needing no more reminders of the perils that accompany powerful hurricanes, participated Monday in what's become an all-too-familiar drill — stocking and shuttering homes in preparation for a storm. Hurricanes Charley and Frances caused billions in damage and were blamed for more than 50 deaths statewide; Ivan may still make landfall as the triumvirate's most powerful.
"If a Category 5 hits, you know what kind of debris could be flying through the air at 160 mph?" asked Bruce Butler, a keyboard player from Panama City Beach who was among those waiting in a 90-minute-long line Monday for plywood at a Home Depot.
Forecasters said Ivan might lose some strength before hitting the Gulf Coast, but would remain a powerful storm.
Millions of residents along the coast were advised to, at the very least, begin paying close attention to Ivan. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in Escambia and Bay counties for low-lying bay and coastal areas; Escambia's order also included mobile homes.
Walton and Okaloosa counties enacted evacuation plans for campgrounds, mobile homes and low-lying areas; Walton's was mandatory, Okaloosa's was, for now, voluntary. Santa Rosa County was to announce its evacuation plan later Tuesday.
Some parts of Louisiana were under voluntary evacuation orders and the state continued preparing for Saturday's election, including a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. Even parts of Mexico shuttled residents and tourists to higher ground and away from the Yucatan Peninsula.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency Monday afternoon and signed an executive order placing the Mississippi National Guard on active duty. Hotels in Alabama filled with evacuees from that state's coastal regions.
Hotels across the western and northern parts of Louisiana began filling up with those seeking higher ground. "It is a bittersweet situation when your best business is during a disaster," Mike Radiky, general manager of the Lafayette Holiday Inn Central Holidome.
Most schools and colleges along the Panhandle closed. Military installations were sending at least 275 aircraft well away from Ivan's possible path. Oil companies evacuated workers from rigs in the Gulf. And while utility crews continued to bring power back to those on the Florida Peninsula who lost it because of Frances' raging winds, Panhandle customers were told to brace for trouble.
"Ivan is an extremely dangerous storm and we want our customers to have realistic expectations," said Gulf Power spokesman John Hutchinson. "The power is not going to be restored in just a few days if Ivan comes in as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane."
Meanwhile, as the Panhandle winced and the Gulf Coast fretted over Ivan's possible path, other areas continued moving toward normal operations. Schools and government offices in many counties hit by Frances reopened their doors, Martin County in southwestern Florida lifted its curfew and hospitals in the Florida Keys began to reopen.
Keys residents were allowed Monday to return to their homes; officials said half of the county's 79,000 population adhered to last week's evacuation order.
Tourism officials said Keys vacationers, who were ordered out when forecasters thought Ivan could directly hit the island chain, were invited to begin returning Thursday. Businesses lost up to $20 million in sales because of the evacuation, according to Monroe County estimates.
"It looked bad. Can't fault them for that," said Jill Brown, 40, a waitress at a restaurant that closed for Ivan. "We could have stayed open a few more days. Bars were open. Anybody that stayed open made a fortune."