By ALLEN G. BREED
Associated Press Writer
PENSACOLA, Fla. – Hurricane Dennis roared onto the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast Sunday with a 120-mph fury of blinding squalls, crashing waves and flying debris that followed in the ruinous footprints of Ivan just 10 months ago.
The storm crossed land about 2:25 p.m. CDT near the same state-line spot where Ivan arrived, pounding beachfronts already painfully exposed by denuded dunes, flattened neighborhoods and piles of rubble that turned into deadly missiles.
“I'm watching building pieces and signs come off,” said Nick Zangari, who rode out the storm in his New York Nick's restaurant and bar in downtown Pensacola. “We were hearing explosions that must have been air conditioning units from other buildings smashing to the ground. … There were parts of buildings and awnings all around.”
Streets in the communities of Pensacola Beach, Fort Walton Beach and Gulf Shores, Ala., were all but deserted as few residents were willing to brave an expected 15-foot storm surge and up to a foot of rain.
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. A buoy just off shore recorded a wave 35 feet high.
The storm quickly weakened after passing over land but still packed devastating winds. Power outages began to take hold almost immediately, with 140,000 homes and businesses without electricity in Florida, most in the Panhandle, and 80,000 affected in coastal Alabama.
Florida's Gulf Power Co. expected more to come, and said its more than 400,000 customers should be prepared to be without electricity for three weeks or more.
Within minutes of the storm's landfall between the western Panhandle towns of Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach, Gov. Jeb Bush asked his brother to declare Florida a major disaster area from the fifth hurricane to hit the state in less than a year.
Dennis, already responsible for at least 20 deaths in Caribbean, grew quickly in the open Gulf of Mexico into a 145-mph, Category 4 storm, which would have made it the most powerful storm on record in the Panhandle and Alabama. But as it approached shore, it weakened to a 120-mph Category 3, identical to Ivan, which killed 29 people in the Panhandle alone and caused billions of dollars of damage.
National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said the distinction between a 3 and a 4 should matter little to those in Dennis' path.
“It's a little bit like the difference between getting run over by an 18-wheeler and a freight train. Neither prospect is good,” he said.
By 5 p.m. EDT, Dennis was about 20 miles north of Pensacola and had weakened to a Category 2 storm with top winds of 105 mph. As it moved inland, the hurricane's next-biggest threat _ tornadoes _ took over. Tornado watches and warnings were posted as far north as Montgomery, Ala.
Forecasters also warned that hurricane-force winds may occur 150 miles inland, along with the threat of up to a foot of rain as Dennis travels north through Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee into the Ohio Valley.
The worst weather was concentrated on the front, eastern edge of the storm where Ivan hit and where blue tarps and scaffolds cover scores of wrecked buildings and more than 3,000 families still rely on government-issued trailers.
High winds and roiling waves ahead of Dennis forced the shutdown of the Escambia Bay Bridge near Pensacola, which became a symbol of Ivan's destruction when a section collapsed and a trucker plunged to his death.
In Panama City, water splashed over the protective seawall and the Frank Nelson drawbridge.
“I think we're going to lose most of our docks … we'll probably have water intrusion in some of these low-lying buildings,” county spokeswoman Catherine Zehner said. As she watched, the driver of an SUV tried to cross as water lapped two feet over the top of the bridge.
“I've never seen that before,” she said.
The Panhandle's Bay and Frankin counties had reported up to an 8-foot storm surge, the weather service said. Destin had reported 4 inches of rain. The large battering waves from the storm were being compared to Hurricane Ivan, which produced walls of water as high as 20 feet on top of the storm surge.
Escambia County emergency management chief Matt Lopez said residents in that Panhandle county, which includes Pensacola, may have benefited because Dennis was a compact, fast-moving storm. Also, Escambia was on the west, or weak side, of Dennis, while it was on the east side of Ivan last September
“It could have been very much worse,” he said. “We were spared the wrath of an Ivan.”
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.
In all, 1.8 million people from Florida to Mississippi had been urged to evacuate, and storm shelters quickly filled up. More than 9,000 people were in shelters Sunday in Florida alone, and others headed to motels and relatives' homes.
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 persuading 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.”
Still, in Pascagoula, Miss., 59-year-old retiree Gerald Duffy was willing to take his chances, even as the skies darkened and Dennis' rains began pelting him on his front porch.
“I've ridden them out before. It won't be my first rodeo,” he said.
For some on the Gulf Coast who have been through the cycles of recovery and rebuilding already with Ivan, Dennis seemed more than just a climatological coincidence.
“The good Lord's trying to tell us something or other,” said 77-year-old Lesley Hale, among 1,200 residents who rode out the storm at a shelter in Pensacola. “Something's going to give.”
Associated Press writers David Royse in Fort Walton Beach, Bill Kaczor in Pensacola, Mark Long in Panama City, Bob Johnson in Gulf Shores, Ala., Brett Martel in New Orleans and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.
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