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Category 3 storm floods, cuts power

Palm Beach Post Staff Writers

Monday, July 11, 2005

The son of Ivan wasn't as terrible as everyone feared.

But it was bad enough Sunday afternoon as Hurricane Dennis smashed ashore southeast of Pensacola, cutting a swath of toppled buildings, downed trees, flooded neighborhoods and washed-out roads nearly as far away as Tallahassee.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

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Cathy Larker and husband, John, wade through floodwaters after surveying damage to their home. They wrapped up Ivan repairs recently.

Greg Lovett/The Post

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Navarre Beach received perhaps the most damage from Dennis, which made landfall just west of the beachfront town. A large portion of the Navarre Beach Pier was torn out.

Almost 120,000 customers were without power by 4 p.m., and outages continued as the storm landed with 120 mph winds and churned through Northwest Florida into Alabama. President Bush declared a "major disaster" in Florida, making federal aid available in 12 Panhandle counties and the Keys.

Flooding was reported in parts of the Panhandle and Big Bend areas — including the riverfront community of St. Marks south of Tallahassee — along with reports of washouts along scenic, low-lying U.S. Highway 98 from Wakulla County to Santa Rosa County.

More than 150 miles east of Dennis' landfall, the storm caused flooding and brought buildings down just west of Apalachicola, said Julie Jones, law enforcement director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. More than 6 feet of water flooded St. George Island nearby, she said.

The National Weather Service issued Dennis-related tornado watches for as far away as Atlanta.

Still, when Dennis made landfall at 3:25 p.m. Eastern time, the potent Category 3 storm was a weaker version of the 145 mph, Category 4 monstrosity that had been roaring out of the Gulf of Mexico a few hours earlier.

Many residents said they were surprised how much less damage Dennis caused than they had seen after Hurricane Ivan, an equally strong but more sprawling storm that crashed onto land just west of Gulf Shores, Ala., on Sept. 16. Ivan killed 29 people in the Panhandle, made buildings explode in Pensacola Beach and caused more than $7 billion damage in the Southeast.

As of Sunday evening, authorities reported only two Florida deaths from Dennis — neither caused directly by the hurricane.

In Walton County, a 3-year-old Defuniak Springs boy died Friday when his father accidentally ran over him with a car while preparing to evacuate, the Florida Highway Patrol reported Sunday. In Fort Lauderdale, a man died early Sunday after stepping on a power line knocked down by a wave of Dennis-fed squalls, Fort Lauderdale police said.

Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center warned that the season's newest tropical depression formed late Sunday night in the central Atlantic about 1,180 miles east of the Lesser Antilles. It is expected to become Tropical Storm Emily today. The private forecasting service AccuWeather warned: "Next week at this time yet another tropical threat may face the coastal United States."

Overall, Dennis "was like a really bad thunderstorm," said Jim Meredith of Tiger Point, a barrier island community just east of Gulf Breeze in Santa Rosa County. Ivan totaled his roof and tore through homes throughout his neighborhood, but by 5 p.m. Sunday, he laughed as he picked up tree limbs with his wife and daughter.

"I'd say we had 15 minutes of wind in Dennis that we had for six or eight hours during Ivan," Meredith said.

"Things are really, really good here," said Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby. "We need to say a prayer tonight because the good Lord took care of us."

But others felt less fortunate — especially in the small towns of Milton, Bagdad and McDavid, which were caught in the fierce winds of Dennis' eye wall.

In McDavid, a farm community north of Pensacola where cows outnumber people, the tin roof of the recreation center for Ray's Chapel peeled off as about 12 people huddled in the hallway.

"It was scary for a while," said Betty Childres. "We went through Ivan and it was nothing like this."

Casey Peterson's grandmother's barn was demolished outside McDavid.

"It was more scary because it was during the day and you could see everything," she said. "With Ivan, all you could do is hear it. But here you were going from window to window and watching the damage."

In nearby Century, a twister took off part of the fire station's roof. In Milton, on the other side of the eye wall, Jason Phillips said he was stunned to see that most of his roof was gone and his front porch was in the back yard.

"I wasn't ready to see the roof ruined," said Phillips, 26, who was trying to patch up the larger holes in the roof as one of Dennis' last squalls threatened.

Even heavier damage happened in Bagdad, a town of mostly older residences and mobile homes. Most of the roads were blocked with fallen trees or electrical poles.

Gerry Watson stood in front of his home with a large cut on his left wrist from trying to free his home from a 30-foot fallen live oak. Down the road, Jackie Hawkins bemoaned the fact that the roof he spent months fixing after Ivan was again in pieces. He said Dennis tore it off in four rapid gusts.

Navarre Beach received perhaps the most damage from Dennis, which made landfall just west of the beachfront town. A large portion of the Navarre Beach Pier was torn out, and sand washed over the main east-west road.

But Santa Rosa County Sgt. Bart Bray said the damage was nothing like what he saw after Ivan.

"Not even close," he said. "All these condos here, their first and second floors were just gone. Not this time."

An official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency who toured the area drove past Bray's car and simply said: "No real big structural damage that we can see."

But state emergency managers weren't minimizing the damage as they planned for search and rescue this morning.

"There are a lot of people who are going to be hurting," said Gov. Jeb Bush — who, for the second time Sunday, urged Floridians to pray for Dennis' victims. He said it's especially true for victims of Ivan who have been living in federally subsidized trailers since losing their homes 10 months ago, and then were chased away by Dennis.

"Now they're going to come back home, and they may not even have the temporary housing," Bush said. He asked people to donate to the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other relief organizations.

The governor and U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez are scheduled to tour the region this morning.

The hurricane threatened to damage 219,000 households while inflicting an economic loss of $1.2 billion and property losses exceeding $5.5 billion, Bush said before the storm struck.

Dennis packed winds of 115 to 120 mph as its eye made landfall on Santa Rosa Island between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach, the National Hurricane Center said. The site was less than 50 miles east of the spot where Ivan hit land.

Hurricane-force winds spread 40 miles from the storm's center as Dennis prepared to come ashore, and tropical storm-force winds spread an estimated 230 miles from the center.

Some experts had been fearing even worse.

As it churned northwestward up the Gulf of Mexico, Dennis had gathered strength Saturday at what the hurricane center called an "insane" rate, becoming a Category 4 colossus. On Sunday morning, as its sustained winds reached 145 mph, some experts said Dennis might end up ranking just below Hurricane Camille, the catastrophic 1969 storm that wiped out the Mississippi coast.

But Dennis weakened to Category 3 shortly before landfall — just as Ivan had done last September. Dennis also took a slight, last-minute jog that carried the eye east of Pensacola, leaving that city on the storm's less dangerous western side.

Watching Dennis' wobbly path Sunday morning "caused me some heart attacks," state meteorologist Ben Nelson said.

Some experts attributed Dennis' weakening to colder water in the northern gulf, but hurricane center meteorologist Martin Nelson called it too soon to say for sure. "There will be people who will write their doctorates on this 10 years from now."

Colorado State University hurricane expert William Gray has said a Category 4 hurricane will typically cause four times the damage of a Cat 3. Still, "the difference between a Category 3 storm and a Category 4 storm is the difference between being hit by a semi-truck or a freight train," Gov. Bush said Sunday, borrowing a phrase from hurricane center Director Max Mayfield.

The storm's approach, after it battered Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba and slapped Key West, prompted authorities to order evacuations by about 1.8 million people in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

Dennis killed at least 20 people total in the Caribbean, then spawned rain storms and heavy winds that knocked out electricity to an estimated 439,600 FPL customers in South Florida, northeast Florida and near Tampa Bay. About 30,000 remained without power late Sunday afternoon, the vast majority in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but should be restored later that night, the utility said.

Nobody remained without power in Martin and St. Lucie counties, and just 600 lacked electricity in Palm Beach County. "That's sort of normal," said Geisha Williams, vice president of electrical distribution.

Statewide, more than 119,000 homes and businesses in 33 counties were without power Sunday. Gulf Power Co., the main electric utility for the western Panhandle, had said its more than 400,000 customers should be prepared to be without electricity for three weeks or more.

More than 1,400 National Guardsmen were staged and ready to head west into the Pensacola Bay area. Gulf Power, BellSouth and Nextel all said they had crews waiting to move in to restore power and communications.

Relief was also coming from South Florida and the Treasure Coast. Ten St. Lucie County sheriff's deputies prepared Sunday to leave for the Panhandle, and the South Florida Water Management District was sending its 48-foot mobile command trailer to be used by state emergency managers.

Before landfall, streets in gulf-front communities from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to Gulf Shores, Ala., were all but deserted as roadside signs blew down and white-capped waves spewed four-story geysers over sea walls. In Gulf Shores, even the police evacuated their storm shelter.

For those who left, the agony becomes waiting to see what's left of their homes once Dennis has passed through.

Jerry Dozier wanted to ride out Dennis in his Pensacola home to make sure he could patch up whatever small leaks broke out. But because he's caring for his 90-year-old mother who suffers from Alzheimer's, he took her to a shelter.

He said it was probably a blessing that her disease, combined with a stroke three years ago, has left her unable to remember anything longer than five minutes.

"She keeps asking to go home," he said.

Staff writer Angela Perez contributed to this story, which includes material from The Associated Press.

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