MIAMI — Hurricane Dennis slashed across Cuba with 150-mph winds and raged north toward America's jittery Gulf Coast Friday, threatening to turn the 2005 Atlantic storm season into a dangerous and record-setting encore to the devastating summer of 2004.
Dennis, whose eye stayed compact and ferocious even as its hurricane-force winds widened over 50 miles, could become the first major hurricane in seven decades to make landfall in July in the U.S., forecasters said. It is one of only seven major hurricanes to occur in July in 150 years of recorded history. Dennis is also the fourth named storm of the season, which started June 1, the most ever at this early stage.
"It's extremely unusual," said Dave Nolan, a meteorologist at the University of Miami.
Dennis is already responsible for at least five deaths in Haiti, where flooding exacerbated by deforestation brought new misery to the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. It shot potent winds at Cuba as its eye passed near the capital, Havana, leaving 10 dead on the island nation.
"It's arrived, with all its diabolical force," President Fidel Castro said on state television Friday afternoon.
The storm's rapid evolution from a moderately powerful hurricane into a sprawling giant sent hundreds of thousands of coastal residents -- from the wild weather-seasoned bartenders along America's southernmost nub in Key West to the shrimpers in Louisiana's bayous -- into varying stages of alert and anxiety. Tourists, their vacations ruined, turned the two-lane road leading out of the Florida Keys into a miles-long traffic jam and left behind their seaside retreats in Gulf Shores, Ala.
Governors across the region declared states of emergency, even as forecasters struggled to predict the final destination of a storm made quirky by the competing effects of high pressure to the east and low pressure over Louisiana and Texas. Most forecasters plotted the storm's track toward landfall between Pensacola, Fla. and Mobile, Ala., a route almost identical to last year's behemoth, Ivan, which killed 52 people in the United States and 70 in the Caribbean. There are still 3,000 people living in temporary federal housing on Florida's Panhandle and more than 9,200 throughout the state.
Key West, assuming its accustomed role, was first in line as a threatened spot Friday and police responded by urging tourists to leave, while residents responded with their usual cheekiness. "Dennis don't be a menace," some local quipster painted on plywood shielding a Duval Street bar. "No trying to reason with hurricane season," mused another plywood expressionist.
Shelters opened along the Keys escape route for residents and tourists, many of whom tried in vain to cajole rental car agencies into making vehicles magically appear out of empty lots.
The westward slide of Dennis boded well for NASA, which left the space shuttle Discovery on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, confident that Dennis would not affect a planned on launch on Wednesday.