July 10, 2005

Hurricane Dennis pounds storm-scarred U.S. coast

By Marc Serota

PENSACOLA, Fla. (Reuters) - Hurricane Dennis raced ashore
on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday with ferocious 120-mph (195
kph) winds and pounding waves that lashed an area still scarred
by last year's storms.

Dennis weakened before it made landfall from a powerful
Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale to a
Category 3. Officials said the destruction left in the
hurricane's wake might be limited somewhat because the storm is
moving quickly through the region.

Nevertheless, it was as strong as September's Hurricane
Ivan, which came ashore near Pensacola and killed 25 people,
caused $14 billion in damages and destroyed or damaged 13 oil
drilling platforms in the Gulf.

"I'm pleased that the winds died a bit," said Florida Gov.
Jeb Bush, brother of President Bush.

But, paraphrasing U.S. National Hurricane Center Director
Max Mayfield, Bush added: "The difference between a Category 3
and a Category 4 is the difference between being hit by a semi
(semi-trailer truck) and a freight train."

The hurricane's eyewall, its intense central core, swept
ashore with a storm surge of up to 15 feet at 3:25 p.m. EDT
(1925 GMT) on Santa Rosa Island between Navarre Beach and
Pensacola Beach, the hurricane center said.

"It's pretty rough. The eyewall came right through and hit
us, it looks pretty bad," said Santa Rosa County emergency
management spokeswoman Jennifer Terry.

"We were recovering from Ivan and this has hampered that.
But we are going to recover from this one."

It was too early to assess damage, but few emergency calls
were received during the storm, she said. "People, I think,
really did heed the warnings to get out," Terry said.

Officials told more than 1.2 million people to evacuate
low-lying areas in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Power was
cut to thousands of customers along the coast, including 78,000
in Alabama, and officials told residents to remain indoors
until Monday.

The storm, which killed 32 people in Cuba and Haiti before
entering the Gulf of Mexico, weakened to a Category 2 hurricane
once it moved inland. But its 105 mph (170 kph) winds still
threatened to bring dangerously heavy rainfall to Alabama and
eastern Mississippi as it headed to the Ohio Valley.

"People really need to know that this hurricane is not done
by any means," Mayfield told CNN.

By 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), its center was 20 miles north of
Pensacola and was moving north at 21 mph (34 kph).

About 2,600 National Guard troops, 700 police and other
emergency workers were getting ready to move in for relief
operations, Florida state officials said.

Energy companies pulled 2,100 workers off oil rigs and shut
down 42 percent of daily crude output and 27 percent of daily
natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, where the United
States gets a quarter of its oil and gas.

Producers and infrastructure operators said they could not
return to normal operations until Monday.

After it left a trail of death and destruction in the
Caribbean, Dennis alarmed coastal residents, some of whom were
still rebuilding their homes 10 months after being pummeled by
Hurricane Ivan.

Ivan was one of four hurricanes to strike Florida last
season in an unprecedented six-week period.

In Pensacola, emergency officials told residents who
decided to ride out the storm at home to write their names in
waterproof ink across their chests in case they were killed and
needed to be identified, WFOR television reported.

Smooth as glass a day before, Pensacola Bay on Sunday
turned into a heaving 4- to 6-foot (1.2-meter to 1.8-meter)
sea, washing over bridges connecting the outlying island and
the Pensacola U.S. Naval Air Station to the mainland.

Before heading north through the Gulf, Dennis brushed the
popular tourist island of Key West on Florida's southern tip.

The hurricane hit Cuba on Friday with 150 mph (240 kph)
winds and crumpled houses, uprooted trees and downed power
lines. Ten people were killed in Cuba and 22 in Haiti.

(Additional reporting by Cathy Donelson in Mobile, Michael
Christie, Jane Sutton and Frances Kerry in Miami, Jennifer
Portman in Tallahassee, Erwin Seba in Houston and Karen Jacobs
in Atlanta)