Hurricane Dennis relents, largely spares Gulf Coast

Storm wobbles, misses heavily populated areas

2 deaths in Fla., 20 in Caribbean

Heavy flooding, outages

1.8 million people flee

July 11, 2005|By Roger Roy, Wes Smith and Jason Garcia | Roger Roy, Wes Smith and Jason Garcia,ORLANDO SENTINEL

PENSACOLA, Fla. - After threatening the worst, Hurricane Dennis relented yesterday, calming slightly and then making a right turn just before a landfall that largely spared Pensacola and other heavily populated parts of the Florida Panhandle.

Coming ashore east of Pensacola yesterday afternoon, Dennis caused widespread flooding and power outages, closed main highways and bridges, and sent about 1.8 million people along the Gulf Coast fleeing to safety.

Dennis, with winds of about 115 mph, made landfall at 3:25 p.m. on Santa Rosa Island, between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach. But as the storm crossed the barrier island and headed inland, the people living along Dennis' path - frighteningly similar to that of deadly Hurricane Ivan 10 short months ago - found the damage was far less than it might have been.

By 9 p.m., Dennis had weakened to a tropical storm with 60 mph winds. It was 20 miles northeast of Jackson, Ala., moving north-northwest at 20 mph.

In Pensacola, dozens of trees and power lines were down across the city. But damage was much less than feared. By late yesterday, Pensacola officials said the city's streets were clear.

Craig Fugate, director of the state's Division of Emergency Management, hesitated to say that Florida had dodged a bullet. "The term `dodged the bullet' for someone who has just got flooded, had a tree fall on their house or is without power is a poor description," he said.

But he acknowledged that, unlike the devastation left by Ivan last year - with more than two dozen dead and many beachside streets still piled with debris of wrecked homes - there were few reports of injuries or major structural damage hours after Dennis passed.

Two deaths in Florida were attributed to Dennis yesterday. The storm was blamed for 20 fatalities as it slammed the Caribbean.

Still, hurricane-force winds from fast-moving Dennis reached up to 100 miles inland, and there were few detailed damage reports late yesterday from smaller and more isolated communities in the hurricane's path.

Regions hit by Dennis were quickly designated a federal disaster area. Power and road crews were sent in, and 2,600 Florida National Guard troops readied for deployment.

About 700 law enforcement officers from around the state were being sent to Pensacola, and state highway crews were being dispatched to inspect bridges.

"We have an awesome team that is moving as we speak toward west Florida," Gov. Jeb Bush said yesterday afternoon.

At the Pensacola Civic Center, the area's largest storm shelter with more than 1,000 evacuees, an elderly man died of an apparent heart attack yesterday. Escambia County Sheriff's Capt. Joel Moneyham said stress from the approaching hurricane might have been a factor.

In Fort Lauderdale, where the hurricane's outer storm bands brought down trees and power lines, police said a man was killed yesterday when he stepped on a fallen electric line in the street.

In the Panhandle, areas east of Pensacola appeared to be hit the hardest. There were reports of flooding as far east as Wakulla County and the town of St. Marks.

On Navarre Beach, Dennis left rows of palm trees lying at sharp angles. The Navarre pier was ripped apart in two places. Power lines were strewn across the road, preventing access.

Authorities estimated that Santa Rosa Island was under at least 5 feet of seawater during the height of the storm.

Still, it could have been worse, authorities said.

"With Ivan, it looked like a bomb blast," said Sgt. Bob Johnson of the Santa Rosa County sheriff's office.

With Dennis, he said, the damage was more sporadic.

"It's not a great day for Navarre," Johnson said. "But it's not Ivan either."

In Destin, Fire Chief Tuffy Dixon said U.S. 98 was washed out between Destin and Fort Walton Beach. The storm also caused extensive erosion.

In Panama City and surrounding Bay County, Dennis caused widespread flooding.

Dennis, the most powerful hurricane to strike Florida so early in the season since 1916, first appeared as a tropical depression in the southeastern Caribbean Sea on July 4 and became a hurricane two days later. It strengthened steadily as it made its way toward the Gulf Coast, weakening briefly as it crossed Cuba but quickly reorganizing.

Forecasters had feared that Dennis would make landfall as a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm with winds up to 145 mph, blasting ashore in the same spot as Ivan in September.

But two last-minute developments yesterday spared Pensacola.

After a frighteningly rapid increase in strength on Saturday that forecasters had described as "insane," Dennis dropped in strength yesterday, making landfall with top winds estimated at 115 mph.

And a wobble in Dennis' track yesterday turned the hurricane in a more northerly direction for a few hours, moving its landfall about 30 miles east of where forecasters had expected. That left Pensacola, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach on the western side of the hurricane's eye, where the wind and the waves were less extreme.

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