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Hit-and-Run Dennis Howls Into Florida

The hurricane's fierce winds and storm surge batter the Pensacola area. Damage appears far less severe than caused by Ivan last year.

July 11, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg and Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writers

NAVARRE, Fla. — Hurricane Dennis barreled into Florida's Panhandle with vicious winds Sunday, peeling the roofs off buildings and pushing a 10-foot wall of water into a region still badly battered from last year's storms.

Dennis made landfall as a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds, creating blizzard-like whiteout conditions and a sound that one witness compared to the howling of a wolf. The storm left street signs twisted, power lines looped over roadways and homes in some seaside communities submerged in water up to their windows.

President Bush on Sunday declared portions of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi disaster areas, making them eligible for federal assistance. No storm-related deaths had been reported, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management said. Though the extent of the damage was uncertain, hundreds of thousands were left without power.

Still, many along the Gulf Coast felt relieved at the end of the day. The eye of the hurricane passed east of Pensacola, Fla., and struck a piney, less-populated stretch of coastline, then headed north at a high speed -- sparing residents the prolonged ordeal they suffered during slow-moving Hurricane Ivan in September.

"It's like a maxi-tornado rolling through an area," said Matthew Lopez, Escambia County's chief of emergency management. "It means the damage is severe, but in a limited area."

Hurricane Dennis, which killed 20 people as it swept through the Caribbean, alarmed meteorologists by intensifying rapidly as it traveled over the Gulf of Mexico.

By early Sunday, Dennis was a Category 4 storm on the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale, with winds whipping up to 145 mph in its core. It would have been the first Category 4 storm to hit the Florida-Alabama border and the first to occur this early in the hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November.

In the days leading up to the hurricane's arrival, about 1.4 million people in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were ordered to evacuate. They poured north on interstate highways, packing inland motels. As late as Sunday afternoon, the phone at the Days Inn in Montgomery, Ala., was ringing every three minutes with requests for rooms, said general manager Priti Patel.

"All we have to say is, 'Sorry, we're booked. Sorry, we're booked,' " she said.

Residents who had shrugged off warnings to leave last year as Ivan approached were alert this time around.

Jo Dee Catrell of the American Red Cross, who was in charge of one shelter, watched a parade of evacuees, some carrying their own bedclothes, file into the Pensacola Civic Center -- ordinarily home to the Florida Panhandle's minor league hockey team, the Ice Pilots.

"People have had it," said Catrell, who lives in Pensacola. "What did we do to tick off Mother Nature?"

Coastal residents had prepared for the worst. But about 11 a.m. CDT Sunday, the storm weakened, its winds dropping to about 120 mph, said Martin Nelson, lead forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Authorities warned that the damage could be catastrophic anyway.

By late Sunday, Dennis had weakened to a tropical storm over southwest Alabama with 60 mph winds. As it moved north, the hurricane's next-biggest threat -- tornadoes -- took over. Tornado watches and warnings were posted as far north as Atlanta.

The difference between a Category 4 and Category 3 hurricane is "a little bit like the difference between getting run over by a freight train and an 18-wheeler. Neither prospect is good," said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center.

As Dennis moved north at the relatively high speed of 20 mph, it battered communities throughout the Southeast with winds and flooding.

A 10- to 12-foot tidal surge submerged homes and businesses in the Florida communities of St. Marks, Live Oak, Panacea and Oyster Bay, said Maj. Maurice Langston of the Wakulla County sheriff's office. Roadways were clogged with tangles of seaweed, making them impassible, he said.

Authorities in Mississippi on Sunday launched a fevered, last-minute campaign to warn residents as far north as Meridian -- 150 miles from the Gulf of Mexico -- that they could be hit by hurricane-force gusts. Warnings of unusually strong winds extended as far as Memphis, Tenn., 400 miles north of the coast, said Lea Stokes, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency in Jackson.

In Louisiana, the hurricane's eastward trend brought a sense of relief. Emergency officials in New Orleans have long warned that a direct hit could mean disastrous flooding.

In the town of Des Allemands, La., authorities had postponed the Catfish Festival for the first time in its 31-year history. Kurt Dempster, chairman of the festival, said he woke up to a beautiful day.

"I guess we were just fortunate yet again," he said. "It's just one of those things."

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