Pensacola, Fla. Hurricane Dennis roared quickly through the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast Sunday with a 120-mph bluster of blinding squalls and crashing waves, but shellshocked residents emerged to find far less damage than when Ivan took nearly the same path 10 months ago.
The tightly wound Dennis, which had been a Category 4, 145-mph monster as it marched up the Gulf of Mexico, weakened just before it struck less than 50 miles east of where Ivan came ashore. And despite downed power lines and outages affecting nearly half a million, early reports indicated no deaths and relatively modest structural damage.
"We're really happy it was compact and that it lasted only so long," said Mike Decker, who lost only some shingles and a privacy fence at his home near where the storm came ashore. "It was more of a show for the kids."
The storm indeed put on a show as it blew ashore at 2:25 p.m. CDT midway between the western Panhandle towns of Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach.
White-capped waves spewed four-story geysers over sea walls. Sideways, blinding rain mixed with seawater blew in sheets, toppling roadside signs for hotels and gas stations. Waves offshore exceeded 30 feet, and in downtown Pensacola, the gulf spilled over sidewalks eight blocks inland. Boats broke loose and bobbed like toys in the roiling ocean.
But Dennis, which was responsible for at least 20 deaths in the Caribbean, spared those to the north because of its relatively small size and fast pace. Hurricane-force winds stretched only 40 miles from the center, compared with 105 miles for Ivan, and Dennis tore through at nearly 20 mph, slightly faster than Ivan.
Rainfall was measured at 8 inches, rather than the expected foot.
"With Ivan, the damage area was probably more spread out and wider than it was for Dennis," National Hurricane Center meteorologist Michelle Mainelli said.
Ivan memories fresh
Ivan, which also had top winds of 120 mph, killed 29 people in the Panhandle and caused more than $7 billion damage in the Southeast. Mindful of that experience, more than 1.8 million coastal residents from Florida to Mississippi were urged to evacuate in advance of Dennis, leaving streets in most beach towns deserted.
Westar Energy on Saturday released work crews to head to the Gulf Coast to work in areas damaged by Hurricane Dennis.
Westar, which provides electricity to Lawrence, was allowing 15 tree crews and six electrical crews to assist where needed in the damaged areas, Westar spokeswoman Karla Olsen said Sunday. The crews are from contracting firms that normally work in Westar's service area, Olsen said.
Even Mark Sigler of Pensacola Beach, who owns a dome-shaped, steel-reinforced house built to withstand 200-mph winds, decided to evacuate.
"The house is hurricane-resistant," he said, "not hurricane-proof."
But hours after Dennis' landfall, Florida emergency operations officials said they had no reports of storm-related deaths. In Alabama, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach officials said they had no reports of significant damage.
A scan of the area between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach showed relatively little damage, with the expected ripped-apart gas station awnings and overturned sheds but few downed power lines and trees.
The normally placid blue Gulf was still churned into a tea-colored froth, but few homes, even along the shore, appeared to have sustained extensive flooding. Neighborhoods along the Gulf showed only intermittent debris. The only seriously compromised roofs along U.S. 98 had blue tarps on them, and appeared to be left over damage from last year's hurricane Ivan.
Frank Larker happily waded out to his three-story gulf-front home in Navarre that was flooded only in the ground-floor garage and laundry room. The living quarters above were unscathed.
His was the only home in his Navarre Shores neighborhood that was habitable after Ivan. He finished the last of the repairs five weeks ago.
"I've lived here 23 years. I've been through several hurricanes and I just keep patching up. I guess I'll patch it up again. It's still worth living here," said the 65-year-old real estate developer. "I feel lucky. I was expecting to not even have a house."
In Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, Commissioner Mike Whitehead said initial reports indicated some broken windows, trees and power lines down, minor flooding in the city and a few trees falling on houses.
"Because of where it went in, we missed a real close shot. It went into a relatively unpopulated area," Whitehead said. "If that thing had shifted 20 miles to the west, we'd have been in trouble, but we got real lucky."
'Dodged a bullet'
In Alabama's coastal Baldwin County, which was ground zero for Ivan last year, officials also breathed a sigh of relief.
"We dodged a bullet," said emergency management director Leigh Anne Ryals, whose pastor husband led a prayer at a news conference hours before the storm.
The biggest problem was power outages, which affected more than 236,700 homes and businesses in the Panhandle, and 240,000 in Alabama. Gulf Power Co., the main power utility for the western Panhandle, said customers should be prepared to do without electricity for three weeks or more.
Another problem Sunday was around the low-lying fishing village of St. Marks, about 20 miles south of Tallahassee. A tidal surge of 10 to 12 feet caused extensive flooding and knocked out about 40 miles of coastal U.S. Highway 98. There was also widespread flooding in nearby coastal homes, but there will not be a full assessment of damage until today.
Nasty weather ahead
Dennis became the fifth hurricane to strike Florida in less than 11 months, and President Bush soon declared parts of the state a major federal disaster along with coastal Alabama and Mississippi.
By 11 p.m., Dennis had weakened to a tropical storm over southwest Alabama with 65 mph winds. As it moved northward, the hurricane's next-biggest threat - tornadoes - took over. Tornado watches and warnings were posted as far north as Atlanta.
Forecasters also warned that Dennis could dump up to 8 inches of rain as it travels over the next few days through Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee into the Ohio Valley.