Dennis charges toward Gulf Coast
PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Hurricane Dennis dealt a glancing blow to the Florida Keys on Saturday, knocking out power and leaving streets flooded with seaweed as it roared toward the storm-weary Gulf Coast, where nearly 1.4 million people were under evacuation orders.
The hurricane, blamed for at least 20 deaths in Haiti and Cuba, carried a threat of more than a half-foot of rain plus waves and storm surge that could be more than a story high when it makes landfall today somewhere along the coast of the Florida Panhandle, Alabama or Mississippi.
Many Gulf residents were still patching up roofs on their homes or living in government trailers because of damage caused by Hurricane Ivan just 10 months ago. For them, Dennis meant another tense weekend of long lines for gas and searching for generators and plywood.
"I'm tired of all this packing up," said Melba Turner, 70, of Fort Walton Beach. "We look like the Beverly Hillbillies when we get all packed up and leave. I'd rather stay. We're getting too old for all this fussing."
Dennis had grown to a Category 4 storm with 150 mph sustained wind early Friday, but it weakened when it crossed Cuba. It regained strength Saturday and by evening had top sustained winds of 125 mph, just 6 mph shy of Category 4 and still increasing. "Category 4 is not just a little bit worse -- it's much worse," said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center in Miami. "The damage increases exponentially as the wind speed increases. And no matter where it makes actual landfall, it's going to have a tremendous impact well away from the center."
Cuban state radio said hundreds of homes around Cuba's southeastern coast had been destroyed or heavily damaged, and civil defense officials said more than 1.5 million people had fled their homes.
Dennis largely spared the Florida Keys as the eye passed west of the islands, but more than 211,000 homes and businesses lost power Saturday across the southern tip of Florida, including the entire city of Key West.
Branches, street signs and other debris littered Key West's streets, waves washed sand and coral onto a main road and parts of the tourist drag of Duval Street were under about a foot and a half of water. No injuries were reported.
"We're holding up," Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley said.
Several tornadoes in the Tampa Bay area caused minor damage such as downed trees, and more twisters were likely in parts of the Gulf of Mexico coast Sunday.
In Alabama, about 500,000 people were under evacuation orders, as were 700,000 in Florida and 190,000 in Mississippi. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urged residents to evacuate if they were told to do so.
Traffic doubled on some Mississippi highways as people fled inland from the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Louisiana. Alabama officials turned Interstate 65 into a one-way route north from the coast to Montgomery.
However, confident that the hurricane would make landfall farther east, officials in New Orleans told nearly half a million residents they could stay home. A voluntary evacuation was lifted for suburban Jefferson Parish, including the barrier island town of Grand Isle.
"We want you to be somewhat comfortable, but not totally relaxed," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said Saturday.
At 3 p.m. EDT, Dennis' eye was about 295 miles south of Apalachicola in the Panhandle and about 425 miles southeast of Pascagoula, Miss. It was moving northwest at about 14 mph after missing Key West by about 125 miles, forecasters said.
Despite the storm's threat, many people refused to be scared away.
"I always stay," nightclub worker Clifton Pugh said in Gulf Shores, Ala. "I've never evacuated. We don't have any place to go. We'll have a couple of decks of cards and some candles and flashlights."
"This is home. This is what we go through," Danielle Kelson said as she filled up gas cans in Pensacola.
Some neighborhoods in Mobile, Ala., had the appearance of a typical Saturday as people mowed lawns, jogged, and shopped.
"God's going to take care of me," Dorothy McGee of Prichard, Ala., said as she shopped for groceries. And besides, she said, "I have nowhere to go."