Hurricane Dennis Could Have Been Worse

PENSACOLA, Florida, July 11, 2005 (ENS) - Hurricane Dennis roared north across the Gulf of Mexico Saturday after claiming 10 lives in Cuba. It was aimed at the same area on the Florida Panhandle that suffered the disastrous effects of Hurricane Ivan last September.

An estimated 9.46 million people living in coastal counties along the Gulf of Mexico braced themselves. Thousands were evacuated to shelters. Advance personnel from a dozen federal, county and volunteer agencies readied for action; disaster and medical teams were standing by - but today everyone is breathing easier.

The hurricane blew through, leaving power outages, damaged homes and downed trees, but no one lost their lives.

"We dodged a major, major bullet," said Escambia County Administrator George Touart on Sunday.


Hurricane Dennis is weakening as it moves inland. (Photo courtesy NASA)
Hurricane Dennis made landfall as a Category 3 storm about 2:25 Sunday afternoon crashing onto Santa Rosa Island between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach, Florida. Gusting to 121 miles an hour the winds hit land, churning up the Gulf and sending waves rolling onto coastal properties.

Roads and bridges were closed and the U.S. Coast Guard shut down coastal waterways, but at this time, emergency services report no deaths, no serious injuries, and no major flooding.

The hurricane is weakening to a tropical depression as it moves inland.

Weather forecasters predict strong gusty winds, some up to hurricane strength still may be felt miles inland. Tornadoes are also possible throughout the day on Monday over central and northern Alabama, Mississippi and the western Tennessee Valley.

At 10 Sunday night the National Weather Service discontinued all coastal tropical cyclone warnings as Hurricane Dennis had moved to Demopolis, Alabama and was proceeded north-northwest at about 16 miles per hour, a speed it is expected to continue over the next 24 hours.

Maximum sustained winds are close to 50 miles per hour with higher gusts, and tropical storm force winds extend outward 70 miles from the center.

While the coastal areas have taken the brunt of the storm, inland areas now face the threat of severe rainstorms, tornados and flooding.

Rainfall of up to eight inches is possible across the southeastern states and into the Lower Ohio Valley over the next few days, and forecasters say some places along Dennis's track may get as much as 12 inches of rainfall.

The governors of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana declared states of emergency, and President George W. Bush announced disaster declarations for the three states to authorize release federal funds and other assistance for those harmed by Hurricane Dennis.

“I appreciate the quick response from President Bush,” said Alabama Governor Bob Riley, who requested the disaster declaration Saturday. “This declaration will speed help to Alabamians affected by the hurricane and will help ease the burden on local governments as they respond and recover from this storm.”

“Our state and local emergency management teams will conduct damage assessments to determine if additional counties need to be added to this disaster declaration," said Bruce Baughman, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. “We will also begin working immediately with local officials to assess immediate needs of hurricane victims.”

In the Pensacola area, about 236,000 of Gulf Power's customers are without electricity, about 60 percent of the residents in three counties - Escambia County, Santa Rosa County and Okaloosa County.

On Saturday, Gulf Power warned its customers that they might have to wait for weeks to get power restored. "The power is not going to be restored in a just a few days if Dennis comes in as strong as it is,” said company spokesman John Hutchinson. “Our employees will work as long, as hard and as safe as we can – but customers should expect and prepare for power outages of up to three weeks or longer.”

Hutchinson encourages everyone to be patient as power crews get the lights back on.


Hurricane Dennis sweeps across Pensacola Beach on Sunday (Photo courtesy Pensacola Visitors Information Center)
“We appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding. After Ivan, everyone was very supportive and that helped us immensely. We want and need that support again so we can help bring light and hope back to the area.”

The electricity went out for about half a million Florida Power and Light customers, most in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but by Sunday evening the power was restored to all but 5,000 of them.

All emergency officials warn people returning home to stay away from downed power lines and power equipment. Always assume a downed power line is live, they warn, and do not attempt to remove tree limbs or anything else caught in power lines.

Cuban-Americans are asking President Bush to lift the restrictions he placed on travel to Cuba last year so that they can go to the assistance of their families who suffered damage in the hurricane.

Sarah Stephens, director of the Freedom to Travel Campaign, based in Washington, DC, said, "There are thousands of Cuban-Americans in the United States who want to travel to Cuba, help their families, and provide material support but who cannot do so because of restrictions on travel and family assistance imposed by President Bush last year."

"These restrictions should have never been imposed but lifting them now would liberate the families of hurricane survivors to help their Cuban kin recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Dennis. In the name of compassion and family values, President Bush should tear down these restrictions and help Cuban families build back their lives."

Another five people were earlier reported killed in Haiti, bringing the known overall Hurricane Dennis death toll for the Caribbean to 15.