Hurricane Prompts Massive Evacuations

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Coastal residents packed up and evacuated or hunkered down Saturday as Hurricane Dennis lashed the Florida Keys with wind and sheets of rain and charged toward areas still rebuilding from last year's storms.

More than 1 million people from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana were under evacuation orders. Landfall was expected Sunday afternoon anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to southeast Louisiana.

"This is a very dangerous storm and we hope that you will evacuate," Gov.
Jeb Bush said to residents in the Panhandle.

The storm, the earliest to reach Category 4 strength in the Caribbean on record, was expected to bring up to 8 inches of rain and 6-foot storm surges Saturday. It was blamed for at least 10 deaths in Cuba and 10 in Haiti.

Several tornado touchdowns in the Tampa Bay area caused minor damage such as downed trees, and more tornadoes and battering waves were likely in parts of the Gulf of Mexico coast Sunday.

The storm decreased in strength to Category 1 after passing over Cuba, but strengthened again as it moved over open water into a Category 2, with top winds of 100 mph.

More than 211,000 homes and businesses were without power Saturday in the southern tip of Florida, including the entire city of Key West, officials said.

The hurricane's eye passed west of the island Saturday morning, but it still produced stinging rain and wind gusts that buckled windows. Tree branches, plywood, street signs and other debris littered the streets, and awnings hung precariously from storefronts. Waves crashed over a seawall, sending sand and coral onto a main road. About three blocks of the tourist drag of Duval Street was under 1 foot of water.

"We're holding up," Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley said. "The biggest damage right now of course is the power being off."

No injuries were reported, but residents braced for battering 8-foot waves on top of 3-foot storm surges expected in the Keys. Rainfall in Key West was about 2.8 inches Friday and early Saturday; forecasts called for up to 8 inches.

Traffic doubled on some Mississippi roads as people fled Florida, Alabama and Louisiana. Alabama officials were turning Interstate 65 into a one-way route north from the coast to Montgomery.

"All day long all of our phones have been ringing. The only thing we can tell people is that we are sold out," said Lasonya Lewis, a clerk at a Montgomery hotel.

About a half-million people in coastal Alabama and more than 700,000 in the Keys and low-lying areas of the Florida Gulf Coast were under evacuation orders.

Normally busy shops in Key West were boarded up and one liquor store had a sign that read: "Dennis Don't Be a Menace." Still, a few places were open to feed the holdouts.

"We've never been in a hurricane before, or even near one," said David Keeley of Peterborough, England, who drank at Sloppy Joe's bar and made plans to go back to his hotel with his wife, "lock the door, pull the blinds and hope for the best."

"If the power stays on, we've got the TV. We've got the minibar. We've got each other," he said.

Key West felt sustained winds around 61 mph early Saturday, with gusts up to 74 mph, said meteorologist Matt Strahan. He said the wind had pushed a vintage DC-3 plane about 300 yards down the tarmac at the city's airport, which was closed. Pensacola's airport was the only other major one closed in the state.

Myra Gamblin, whose home in Pace, Fla., was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ivan last September, said the storms were wearing on her nerves. "We finally got everything repaired in January and here we go again in July," she said.

At 1 p.m. EDT, Dennis' eye was about 355 miles south-southeast of Apalachicola in the Panhandle and about 460 miles southeast of Pascagoula, Miss. It was moving northwest at about 14 mph, forecasters said. The storm's center had passed within about 125 miles west of Key West.

Hurricane-force wind of at least 74 mph extended up to 35 miles from Dennis' center, and tropical storm-force wind stretched up to 175 miles out.

Many in Dennis' strike zone were aware that it was following nearly in the path of Ivan, which came ashore at the Florida-Alabama line, causing 29 deaths and $4 billion damage in the Panhandle alone.

Mitch Lamb had lived in a travel trailer while his home was being repaired and only recently moved back. About 9,300 other trailers were still in use by Floridians whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the hurricanes.

As he packed up his belongings Friday, Lamb was ready to give up on his Gulf Breeze home after spending $70,000 out of his own pocket on repairs.

"I hope this house is gone when I get back because I do not want to go through it again," he said. "We'll just sell the waterfront property and take the loss."