- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2005

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Dennis dealt a glancing blow to the Florida Keys yesterday , 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, threatened to bring 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 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, Fla. “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 and barely maintained hurricane strength.

But over open water, it rapidly gained power as it moved northward, heading toward the Gulf Coast between Pensacola, Fla., and Mobile, Ala.

By last night, it had top sustained winds 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.”

Dennis largely spared the Florida Keys as the eye passed west of the islands, but more than 211,000 homes and businesses lost power 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 today in parts of the Gulf of Mexico coast.

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, La.

“We want you to be somewhat comfortable but not totally relaxed,” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said yesterday.

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.”

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