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Category 4 Storm Roars Toward Gulf Coast





FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Hurricane Dennis closed in on the Gulf Coast early Sunday after strengthening into a dangerous Category 4 storm, plowing toward a region still recovering from a hurricane 10 months ago.


With nearly 1.4 million people under evacuation orders, some towns in the projected path were left almost deserted. Landfall was expected Sunday afternoon somewhere along the coast of the Florida Panhandle, Alabama or Mississippi.


After weakening to a Category 2 storm over Cuba, Dennis regrouped in the Gulf on Saturday and became a Category 4 storm again early Sunday, with sustained winds of 145 mph.


``Category 4 is not just a little bit worse - it's much worse,'' said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. ``Damage increases exponentially as the wind speed increases. And no matter where it makes actual landfall, it's going to have a tremendous impact well away from the center.''





Dennis' expected landfall on Sunday would be the earliest a Category 4 hurricane has hit the United States since Hurricane Audrey struck the Louisiana and Texas coasts in June 1957, according to the National Hurricane Center.


Blamed for at least 20 deaths in Haiti and Cuba, Dennis carried a threat of more than a half-foot of rain plus waves and storm surge up to 19 feet in the same area that was pummeled by Hurricane Ivan last September.


``I think there is a legitimate feeling, 'Why me? What did I do wrong?''' Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said.


Before entering the Gulf, Dennis swung around the Florida Keys and dealt a glancing blow, flooding streets and knocking out power. Tropical-storm force winds of 39 mph were expected on the Gulf Coast by the wee hours of Sunday morning.


As night fell Saturday and the first bands of rain started hitting Fort Walton Beach, nearly every business was closed. One exception was Joe and Eddie's, a diner providing short breaks for sheriff's deputies working 12-hour shifts.


``It's the only place around that's open,'' deputy Jim Welch said.


About 700,000 people were under evacuation orders in Florida, as were 500,000 in Alabama and 190,000 in Mississippi. Traffic doubled on some highways as people fled inland. Alabama officials turned Interstate 65 into a one-way route north from the coast to Montgomery.


In Panama City, Fla., the only businesses open Saturday evening were a few chain restaurants and a strip club. Destin was also a ghost town, its famous beach empty during the afternoon despite sunny skies. Restaurants and shops normally packed with summer tourists were mostly boarded up.


A meal was also hard to find in downtown Pensacola, but Nick Zangari said he planned to open his restaurant and bar at 6 a.m. for media and emergency workers. The news that Dennis had returned to Category 4 strength didn't worry him and he planned to stay open even as the storm made landfall.


``This building's been here over 100 years,'' Zangari said. ``I'm here, I'm staying here.''


Police went through waterfront neighborhoods in coastal Panhandle cities advising residents of the mandatory evacuation orders. In Fort Walton Beach, they didn't have any problem convincing Pat Gosney, who remained in his house across the street from an offshoot of Choctawhatchee Bay during Hurricane Ivan last year.


``That's why we're leaving,'' Gosney said. ``We'll never stay again.''


Dennis weakened to Category 2 when it crossed Cuba and then regained strength Saturday to Category 3 and then Category 4 early Sunday.


At 5 a.m. EDT, Dennis' eye was about 170 miles south of Panama City in the Panhandle and 245 miles southeast of Biloxi, Miss. It was moving north-northwest at about 15 mph and expected to turn more to the north before landfall, forecasters said.


The storm already toppled trees and flooded streets in the Florida Keys, and more than 211,000 homes and businesses lost power across the southern tip of Florida, but the eye passed 125 miles to the west of Key West.


Exposed at the tip of Florida's Peninsula, Key West last endured a direct hit from a hurricane in 1948.


``We were lucky, no doubt about it,'' said Jim Hendrick as he picked up branches in front of his house.


Residents who evacuated the lower Keys were asked to stay away until Sunday, and visitors were told they could return Monday.


Several tornadoes in the Tampa Bay area caused minor damage such as downed trees.


Among the evacuees from the Panhandle were tens of thousands of military personnel, their families and much of the war equipment that officials didn't want to leave in harm's way. At Hurlburt Field, home to the Air Force's 16th Special Operations Wing, not a plane was in sight Saturday.


For Gulf Coast residents, the approaching hurricane was all too familiar.


``I have my moments of bitterness, but I'm OK,'' said Andrea Walter of Gulf Breeze, whose house was seriously damaged by Ivan. ``You can't get too discouraged or you'll go crazy.''


Associated Press writers Coralie Carlson in Key West, Bill Kaczor in Pensacola, Mark Long in Panama City, Garry Mitchell in Gulf Shores, Ala., Brett Martel in New Orleans and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.



07/10/05 07:07







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