Panhandle Residents Breathe Sigh of Relief

Visit K8 StormTeam's WeatherTalk blog above for the latest information and expected impact on Region 8.
Visit K8 StormTeam's WeatherTalk blog above for the latest information and expected impact on Region 8.

July 10, 2005 -- Posted at 9:32 am CDT

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 to 400,000, 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 3:25 p.m. EDT 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 broken loose and bobbed like toys in the roiling ocean.

"It sounds like the proverbial freight train," said Mari Darr Welch, riding out the storm at home in Fort Walton Beach. "I stepped out on the front porch and got slammed against house by a big gust."

But Dennis, which was responsible for at least 20 deaths in Caribbean, helped those in its path by its relatively small size and fast pace. Hurricane-force winds stretched only 40 miles from the center, compared with 105 miles for Ivan, and it tore through at nearly 20 mph. 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, 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 the experience, coastal residents fled in advance of Dennis, leaving streets in Pensacola Beach, Fort Walton Beach and Gulf Shores nearly deserted.

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.

Escambia County Commissioner Mike Whitehead said initial reports indicate some broken windows, trees and power lines down, minor flooding in downtown Pensacola 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."

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 140,000 homes and businesses in Florida, mostly 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 in 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 Monday.

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 9 p.m., Dennis had weakened to a 60-mph tropical storm over southwest Alabama. 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.

Escambia County Administrator George Touart said crews were poised to begin cleanup work as soon as it was safe to be on the road.

"We're not sure if we're in phase two of Ivan cleanup or phase one of this cleanup," Touart said. "The bottom line is between Dennis and Ivan, we'll get this place cleaned up."

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.

Ten people in the Alabama town of Foley, about 10 miles from the coast, defied the order and sat out the storm at the Town And Country Motel, where the sign is still missing because of Ivan.

Melissa Hill, manager of the motel, said they played cards and hung out until it passed, but she had her uneasy moments.

"To be honest with you, I was worried when they said them old winds were packing Category 4," she said. "Everybody should thank God that they are alive and have got a place to go home to."

(Copyright 2005 by the Associated Press, All Rights Reserved)