GULF SHORES, Ala. (AP) - Hurricane Ivan slammed ashore early Thursday with 130 mph wind, launching tornadoes, whipping up waves and hurling metal signs through the night. At least 12 U.S. deaths were blamed on the storm, but officials said the toll and the damage could have been even worse.
Up to 15 inches of rain were expected as the storm moved inland. It weakened by late morning, but remained a Category 1 hurricane with wind of 75 mph eight hours after its 3 a.m. landfall.
Ivan had already killed 68 as it passed through the Caribbean, weeks after Hurricanes Charley and Frances tore through on their treks to Florida, causing dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.
When Ivan hit the Gulf Coast, it knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people, toppled trees and ripped off roofs. In the beach resort town of Gulf Shores, where the storm's eye came ashore, the sky glowed bright green as electrical transformers blew.
Still, many of the millions of Gulf Coast residents who spent a frightening night in shelters and boarded-up homes emerged Thursday morning to find that Ivan was not the catastrophe they had feared.
"Ivan was nowhere near as bad as Frederic - not even close," Mobile Police Chief Sam Cochran said, referring to the 1979 storm that devastated the Alabama coast. "I think we were really spared and blessed."
New Orleans, especially vulnerable to storms because much of it lies below sea level, had just a touch of rain.
"Leaves in the pool - that's it," said Shane Eschete, assistant general manager of the Inn on Bourbon Street. "It won't take us long to clean that up."
Downtown Mobile was deserted early Thursday. Historic, oak-tree-lined Government Street was blocked with downed tree limbs, metal signs, roofing material and other storm debris.
"We were wondering at first if we made the right choice or not," said Marc Oliver, 38, who rode out the storm with his family in Mobile, moving from room to room as the wind shifted. "We had some trees down in our yard and roofing damage. Other than that, we came out pretty good."
President Bush signed disaster declarations Thursday for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and was awaiting paperwork from Florida.
In Florida, two people were killed and more than 200 homes were damaged when at least five tornadoes roared through Bay County. Another tornado killed five people when it struck homes in Blountstown, Fla., and an 8-year-old girl died after being crushed by a tree that fell onto her mobile home in Milton, Fla. Her parents were unharmed.
"You want to see the natural hand of God firsthand, but you don't realize how strong it is," said Kevin Harless, 32, who was sightseeing in Panama City Beach, Fla., around the time of the tornadoes.
Four ailing evacuees - a terminally ill cancer patient, two nursing home patients and a homebound patient - died after being taken from their storm-threatened southern Louisiana homes to safer parts of the state.
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, warned that the misery would spread as Ivan moved across the Southeast. "I hate to think about what's going to happen inland," he said.
At 11 a.m. EDT, Ivan was centered about 65 miles west-southwest of Montgomery, Ala., and was moving north at 14 mph. Forecasters projected a northeastern march across most of the South and parts of the Midwest.
Hurricane warnings along the coast were lifted by late morning, but a tropical storm warning remained in effect from the mouth of the Pearl River in eastern Louisiana to Apalachicola, Fla.
National Hurricane Center forecasters said land east of where Ivan's eye passed would experience storm surge of 10 to 16 feet, topped by large and dangerous battering waves.
"We've had calls from folks saying, 'The water is rising. Can you come get me?' Unfortunately we can't send anybody out. The storm is at its worst point now," Sonya Smith, a spokeswoman for Florida's Escambia County emergency management agency, said early Thursday.
The storm's northward track spared New Orleans a direct hit. Parts of the city saw only sporadic, light rain overnight, though wind gusts reached tropical storm strength.
City officials had scrambled to get people out of harm's way, putting some 1,100 people in the cavernous Louisiana Superdome and urging others to move to higher floors in tall buildings.
At least 296,000 homes and businesses were without power in Alabama, 51,000 in Louisiana, 70,000 in Mississippi, and more than 338,000 in the four westernmost Florida Panhandle counties. Florida workers were also still trying to restore power to about 160,000 hit by Hurricanes Charley and Frances in recent weeks.
Ivan's waves - some up to 25 feet - destroyed homes along the Florida coast Wednes