Thousands flee as Hurricane Dennis sets sights on Gulf Coast

Staff and Wire Reports

Northeast Mississippi, be prepared for Hurricane Dennis – that's the word from Mississippi Emergency Management Agency officials Saturday.

The forecast includes strong, possibly damaging winds of more than 50 mph, tornadoes and flooding rains 4-8 inches as the storm makes landfall and starts tracking to the northwest Sunday night and Monday, said Lea Stokes with MEMA.

“Residents living in mobile homes should make plans to seek other shelter and make evacuation plans if necessary,” Stokes said.

Patty Tucker, director of the Northeast Mississippi chapter of the American Red Cross, said because Saturday afternoon forecasts were calling for the storm to track through this area, she predicts emergency shelters may be housing more regional residents than Gulf Coast evacuees.

“I'm hearing that a lot of people are being advised to go west instead of north” because of the storm path, she said as she worked to prepare Tupelo's emergency shelter in the First Christian Church at 1590 McCullough Blvd.

In Northeast Mississippi, Sunday's forecast called for a 50 percent chance of rain with wind gusts up to 30 mph, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Internet site at ww.noaa.gov.

By Sunday evening, heavy rainfall is likely with wind increasing to 40-45 mph and gusts at 55 mph. Heavy rains are predicted to continue Monday with winds easing somewhat, although new rainfall could be more than 4 inches.

Local flooding is a concern, Tucker said.

By late Saturday afternoon, nearly 50 horses belonging to Gulf Coast storm evacuees were being cared for at the Mississippi Horse Park in Starkville.

In Lee County, emergency officials were waiting orders on storm preparation or if they will be needed farther south.

Across South Mississippi

PASCAGOULA – A strengthening Hurricane Dennis churned toward the northern Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, threatening to reach Category 4 strength when it makes landfall. Thousands of evacuees hoping to escape the storm streamed out of Mississippi's three coastal counties.

Harrison County closed casinos and ordered a mandatory evacuation of the county's low-lying areas, of the area south of Interstate 10 and of any buildings in the county which cannot withstand 80 mph winds, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said.

Residents of low-lying areas in Jackson County were issued a mandatory evacuation, MEMA said. Hancock County called for voluntary evacuations.

MEMA director Robert Latham, speaking at an evening briefing, said forecasters told him Dennis could reach Category 4 with 140 mph winds by the time it makes its expected landfall sometime Sunday.

He said preparations were being made to send military police units to Camp Shelby for possible deployment to the areas hardest-hit by Dennis.

“We've just got to make sure the public understands the seriousness of this hurricane,” Latham said.

Though some projections have Dennis making landfall between Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., Latham urged coastal residents to evacuate because a slight shift in its path could bring it into Mississippi.

“That is too close to Mississippi for comfort,” Latham said.

The evacuation was going smoothly Saturday with no reports of congested traffic or accidents, officials said.

State of emergency

In the meantime, many residents along the Mississippi coast were ready to stay put.

“Coast people have a tendency to hunker down,” said Robert Martinez of the Jackson County emergency operations team.

The latest projections had the center of the storm east of the Mississippi coast, perhaps near the Alabama-Florida line on Sunday. Officials said hurricane force winds and torrential rains would still pound the Mississippi coast. In addition, the projected track would bring high winds and rain into northern and eastern counties.

Gov. Haley Barbour issued a state of emergency on Friday and at least 600 National Guard soldiers were standing by to help in evacuations, clean up efforts and to support local law enforcement agencies.

The American Red Cross said it was moving 60 mobile canteens capable of serving 30,000 hot each a day to the staging points of Hattiesburg and Jackson. The agency said more help would be brought in if needed.

Earlier Saturday, Latham said 32 additional law enforcement officers had been sent to Hattiesburg, where north-south routes Interstate 59 and U.S. 49 cross, to assist with traffic control.

At Hattiesburg, where I-59 and U.S. 49 meet, business was brisk for many convenient stores.

Gayle Saltsgiver, the manager of Stuckey's Express, said people were buying “ice, gas, oil and snacks but water's been the big thing.”

MEMA said traffic had doubled on some roads as people fled Florida, Alabama and Louisiana.

More than a million people from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana were under evacuation orders by Saturday.

Officials estimated that nearly 400,000 evacuees from four states used Mississippi highways during Hurricane Ivan last year. Roughly 100,000 of those evacuees were thought to be from the state's southern counties.

Officials moved the state's forward emergency operations center on Saturday from Jackson to Camp Shelby, a National Guard training center south of Hattiesburg.

Nunnery said the mobile operations center would setup at Camp Shelby and wait for the storm to hit.

Latham and other MEMA officials toured emergency operations centers in the state's coastal counties Saturday in preparation for the hurricane.

The storm had strengthened Friday morning to a Category 4 with winds reaching 150 mph, but weakened as it passed over Cuba, dropping to a Category 2. It regained strength Saturday and by evening had top sustained winds just 6 mph shy of Category 4 and still increasing.

Dennis was expected to regain strength as it emerged over the Florida Straits and into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico later in the day.

At 8 p.m. CDT, Dennis' eye was 275 miles south of Panama City in the Panhandle and 365 miles southeast of Biloxi, Miss. After missing Key West by about 125 miles, it was moving northwest at about 13 mph and expected to turn to the north before making landfall, forecasters said.

Hurricane-force wind of at least 74 mph extended up to 35 miles from Dennis' center, and tropical storm-force wind stretched up to 175 miles out.

A hurricane warning was issued for portions of the northeastern U.S. Gulf Coast from the Steinhatchee River westward to the mouth of the Pearl River.

Hurricane shelters were opened in at least 20 Mississippi counties and the Red Cross was working to identify others as needed. Hotel rooms throughout Mississippi were filling up as those in threatened areas sought shelter inland.

Associated Press Writer Joedy McCreary in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.

On the Web:

MEMA Web site: http://www.msema.org/index.htm

– For shelter information, call the American Red Cross at 842-4571 or go to www.mesma.org

– Tupelo shelter at First Christian Church, 1590 McCullough Blvd.

FORECAST:

Sunday – 50% chance of showers, thunderstorms, winds 15-20, gusts as high as 30 mph.

Sunday night – Heavy rainfall, winds 40-45 mph, gusts 55 mph.

Monday – More heavy rainfall, winds decreasing to 30-35 mph, gusts to 55 mph.

Monday night – More rain, winds 15-25 mph, gusts to 35 mph.

Tuesday – Chance of rain 60%.