July 9, 2005

Growing Hurricane Dennis takes aim at US Gulf coast

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - Authorities urged more than 1.2 million
people to evacuate as a powerful and growing 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 hurricane had winds of 125 mph (201 kph) as it charged
along a northwesterly track through the Gulf of Mexico that
could take it to landfall on Sunday between Florida's
northwestern panhandle and Mississippi. The area, still deeply
scarred from a battering by Hurricane Ivan in September, could
get as much as 12 inches of rain.

At 9 p.m. (0100 GMT), the hurricane's center was about 275
miles south of Panama City, Florida, and was moving
northwestward at 13 mph (21 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane
Center said.

Forecasters said it could become a Category 4 hurricane,
with winds of more than 130 mph by the time it reached the
coast Sunday afternoon or evening.

"We don't see any reason why this hurricane should not
continue to strengthen," National Hurricane Center Director Max
Mayfield told CNN. "People in the hurricane warning area need
to be preparing for a major hurricane."

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

Some residents who decided to stay as Dennis approached
shuttered their houses with recycled boards bearing the words
"Go Away Ivan." Blue tarps covered the roofs of some homes that
have yet to be repaired after last year's damaging storm.

"We're scared," said Lee Schoen, 48, a youth services
worker who said she was boarding up her waterfront home on
Mobile Bay in Alabama and getting out. "We're moving our
valuables and things you can't replace and going to my

Before heading north through the Gulf, Dennis grazed
southern Florida, leaving tens of thousands of homes and
businesses without power, state officials said.


The storm had hit Cuba on Friday as a ferocious 150 mph
(240 kph) hurricane but its winds weakened to 90 mph (144 kph)
as it crossed the Caribbean island. It 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.

"This is a very dangerous storm," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
said, urging people to heed evacuation orders or advice out to
some 700,000 people in the state.

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

Pensacola, Florida, looked like a ghost town on Saturday.
Cars streamed east all day and service stations ran out of

Florida officials said some 40,000 homes statewide had not
been repaired from the four devastating hurricanes that hit
last summer.

In Alabama, residents in Mobile and Baldwin counties
received computer-generated telephone messages from emergency
centers, saying, "Please prepare to leave immediately."
Thousands crowded highways heading north.

Many who stayed waited in line for hours to buy generators
and gas cans, which sold as quickly as they were unloaded from
trucks at hardware stores. Some coastal towns were placed under
9 p.m. curfews.

"We're staying. We have faith in the Lord," said Brenda
Terrance Jackson, a cook at a pizza restaurant in the
evacuation area.

In Cuba, Dennis shattered houses, downed power lines and
littered streets with debris before brushing past the southern
tip of Florida. 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

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.

In Haiti, 15 people died when a swollen river tore away a
bridge. The overall death toll in Haiti reached 22, officials
said. (Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana, Joseph
Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Cathy Donelson in Mobile,
Jennifer Portman in Tallahassee, Marc Serota in Pensacola and
Frances Kerry in Miami)