July 9, 2005

Million urged to leave U.S. coast ahead of Dennis

By Frances Kerry

MIAMI (Reuters) - Authorities urged more than a million
people to evacuate as Hurricane Dennis closed in on low-lying
coastal areas of northwestern Florida, Alabama and Mississippi
on Saturday after killing at least 32 people in Cuba and Haiti.

The storm was on a northwest track that could take it to
landfall on Sunday between Florida's northwestern panhandle and
Mississippi -- an area still recovering from a battering by
Hurricane Ivan in September.

Early on Saturday Dennis had pounded Cuba, shattering
houses, downing power lines and littering streets with debris
before brushing past the southern tip of Florida.

Even though southern Florida did not get Dennis' full
force, some 140,000 homes and businesses were without power in
the state at about noon, state officials said. Most outages
were in the Florida Keys and other parts of southern Florida,
including the Miami area, hit by stormy weather from the
hurricane's outer bands.

Dennis weakened as it crossed Cuba on Friday from a
ferocious 150 mph (240 kph) hurricane to a 90-mph (144-kph)
storm but immediately regained some of its lost strength when
it hit open water and skirted Key West, the popular tourist
island at the end of the Florida Keys chain.

The hurricane was pushing top sustained winds of about 100
mph (160 kph) and forecasters said it could strengthen in the
coming hours as it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf.

At 3 p.m. (1900 GMT) the center of Dennis was located about
295 miles south of Apalachicola, Florida, and was moving
northwestward at 14 mph (23 kph).

"This is a very dangerous storm," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
said, urging people to heed evacuation orders or advice out to
some 700,00 people in the state.

Authorities in Alabama and Mississippi called for more than
500,000 people to leave their homes in vulnerable areas.


In Cuba, workers cleared debris, fallen trees, lampposts
and electrical lines from streets in urban areas pounded by the
storm. Much of the country of 11 million people was still
without power, including Havana, the capital, and Cienfuegos,
the city on the south-central coast hardest hit by Dennis.

"It felt as if the world was coming to an end," said Maria
Helena, a housewife in Cienfuegos. "The hurricane sounded like
helicopters and planes flying over my home."

Roaring winds with gusts of up to 100 mph (165 kph) and
driving rain pounded blacked-out Havana all night. Authorities
cut off power to avoid accidents from fallen cables.

Ten people were killed in Cuba on Thursday night when the
storm hit the southeastern corner of the island, most of them
in collapsed houses in two coastal towns in Granma province.

Officials said 15,400 of the adjacent towns' 20,000 houses
were destroyed or damaged. Television images showed rows of
clapboard houses flattened by the storm.

In southern Haiti, 15 people died when a swollen river tore
away a bridge. The overall death toll in Haiti reached 22,
officials said.

Authorities had ordered people out of the lower half of the
100-mile Florida Keys but the island chain appeared to escape
the full brunt of the storm.

"We're very fortunate that we didn't get the bulk of the
storm," Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley told Miami's WFOR
television. "We haven't had a lot of damage."

Dennis is a threat to key oil and natural gas fields in the
Gulf of Mexico, where a quarter of U.S. production comes from.
Energy companies have pulled hundreds of workers off oil rigs
and shut down some crude and natural gas production.

Ivan, which was one of four hurricanes that hit Florida in
a six-week period last year, caused extensive damage to Gulf
pipelines and rigs. Dennis could hit on Sunday in the area near
the Florida-Alabama border that was hammered by Ivan.

Florida officials said some 40,000 people across the state
had homes that still had not been repaired from last year's

"They are hurting," said Bush, referring to residents of
the area. "There is a legitimate feeling 'why me, why us, what
did we do wrong?"' (Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in
Havana, Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Cathy Donelson
in Mobile, Jennifer Portman in Tallahassee and Jim Loney in