Hurricane Dennis pounds Cuba

At least 15 dead as storm bears down on Keys

Fla. Panhandle possible target

July 09, 2005|By Wes Smith and Jason Garcia | Wes Smith and Jason Garcia,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. - Hurricane Dennis pounded Cuba yesterday with 135 mph winds, killing at least 10 people, as it barreled northwest toward the Florida Keys and the Gulf Coast.

Tens of thousands of tourists and residents fled Key West and the Panhandle, as Floridians who endured four hurricanes last year braced for one of the mightiest storms ever to strike so early.

"Everybody's just so worn out," said Kris Lalumiere, a 57-year-old retiree who was buying extra dog food at a grocery store in Gulf Breeze, near Pensacola. "I mean, how many of these can we take?"

Forecasters expected Dennis, after emerging from Cuba, to weaken slightly today but to bulk up again and maintain at least Category 3 strength as it heads into warmer Gulf of Mexico waters.

Then, Dennis will pick another target, making landfall somewhere between Louisiana and Florida's Panhandle tomorrow afternoon.

Steered by a high

Exactly where will depend largely on the ridge of high pressure that has been steering Dennis all along. As the storm parallels Florida's West Coast today, it should skirt the western fringe of the high, turning Dennis more northward.

Just when that happens will determine Florida's fate, especially the Panhandle's.

"It's all in the timing," said meteorologist Jim Lushine at the National Hurricane Center west of Miami. "The high can shift back and forth, so where it is will determine how close Dennis will get to the state. With any luck, the ridge will build further in the Gulf, and Dennis would miss Florida altogether."

Even that, though, would not spare Pensacola, still recovering from last year's devastating Hurricane Ivan. As Ivan showed, even if Dennis plows into Louisiana or Mobile Bay, Pensacola will be sitting on the storm's worst side.

"It's going to be hard at this point to avoid the Panhandle not having significant impacts no matter where it goes," said Ben Nelson, the state meteorologist.

If Dennis follows the hurricane center's track, Dennis' core was expected to pass about 70 miles southwest of Key West about 2 a.m. today. That would keep most of the severe hurricane-force winds west of Key West.

Still, weather officials anticipate severe weather conditions for the lower Keys and Key West, with sustained winds at or near minimal hurricane strength.

Nelson also said he expects a 4- to 7-foot surge along the state's west coast, similar to that created by Hurricane Charley last August. The storm could drop as much as 8 inches of rain in some areas where waterways are already swollen to flood stage levels, he warned.

In Cuba, strong winds and surf buffeted the U.S. detention camp for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, on the island's eastern end, where a guard tower was washed into the sea. There were no reports of casualties.

`Diabolical force'

"It's arrived, with all its diabolical force," President Fidel Castro said on state television. He said there were 10 deaths in southeastern Cuba but did not provide details. An additional five died in Haiti, bringing the storm's overall death toll to 15.

State officials said yesterday that nearly 10,000 Florida National Guard troops are available to help if called on - nearly double what was available to help with last year's hurricanes.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush returned to Tallahassee two days early from his annual vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine, to deal with the threat of the storm.

In the Keys, meanwhile, about 45,000 tourists, mobile home dwellers and residents living in the southern part of the island chain were under orders to evacuate. In Key West, normally busy shops were covered with plywood as crews trimmed tree branches near power lines to limit the unavoidable outages that will come.

Not everyone left.

David and Linda Keeley, of Peterborough, England, were among about a dozen people drinking beer and eating at Sloppy Joe's bar in Key West.

"We've never been in a hurricane before, or even near one," said David Keeley, 57. They planned to return to their hotel, "lock the door, pull the blinds and hope for the best."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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