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Fierce hurricane steams toward U.S. coast

Hurricane Dennis could be a Category 4 hurricane capable of extreme damage when it makes landfall near the Panhandle on Sunday, forecasters said.


Hurricane Dennis could be a Category 4 hurricane capable of extreme damage when it makes landfall near the Florida Panhandle, Alabama or Mississippi on Sunday, forecasters said.

Dennis, a Category 3 storm by late Saturday, carried a threat of more than a half-foot of rain plus a storm surge that could be more than a story high.

With about 1.4 million residents evacuated in Alabama and Florida, it was watch-and-wait for many people on Saturday.

“This is a very dangerous storm and we hope that you will evacuate," said Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to Panhandle residents in a press conference.

The storm was moving northwest at about 14 mph after missing Key West by about 125 miles, forecasters said.

The storm decreased in strength to Category 1 after passing over Cuba, where it killed 10 people. Earlier this week, Dennis hit Haiti, killing 10 people there. Then it strengthened again as it moved over open water into a Category 2, with top winds of 100 mph.

Dennis is the earliest Category 4 hurricane to develop in the Caribbean, and it is the strongest hurricane to develop this early in the Atlantic storm season.

Responders were planning to provide services in the Florida Keys for people affected by storm damage there. The hurricane skirted the Keys on Saturday, and 250 people spent the night in an American Red Cross shelter. Keys residents will not be allowed to return home until Sunday.

More than 200,000 homes and businesses were without power Saturday in the southern tip of Florida, including the entire city of Key West, though the Keys were spared the worst of the storm.

Key West coped with sustained winds around 61 mph early Saturday, with gusts up to 74 mph.

By Saturday afternoon, bad weather was creeping into other parts of Florida. Miami and Broward counties both reported minor storm damage by Saturday afternoon.

At least 60 mobile canteens capable of serving nearly 30,000 hot meals each day have been dispatched from Salvation Army units through the southeastern U.S. The crews will arrive at staging areas in Jackson, Miss., and in Tallahassee, Fla., on Sunday afternoon.

Other faith-based and voluntary groups - working closely with state and federal emergency management officials - were preparing an immediate response after the storm makes landfall. Getting tarps over damaged roofs will be a first priority, many responders agreed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) planned to deploy AmeriCorps teams to put blue tarps on damaged roofs within hours after the storm hits.

“Hopefully, we will begin to have AmeriCorps teams on the ground shortly after landfall,” said a FEMA official. “They can do a blue tarp in less than a half hour. It’s going to be a big operation in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.”

Garret Walton, co-executive director of Rebuild Northwest Florida, said that nonprofit would also try to replace roofs altogether. “We may go out and try to put real roofs on, too,” he said.

Faith-based and voluntary groups also offered flood cleanup supplies that will be distributed to warehouses being identified on Saturday.

Most groups agreed that local volunteers can help immediately after the storm, but out-of-town volunteers can more likely help over the long term. “The United Church of Christ has a volunteer working housing facility in Charlotte County, Fla., that can accommodate 24 volunteers and one in Polk County that can also accommodate 24 people,” said Bill Wealand of the United Church of Christ. “We are working on one in Palm Bay in Brevard County, too."

Many faith-based groups reminded people to simply pray and help their neighbor. “We ask that you see Hurricane Dennis as an opportunity to minister to your community in the Lord’s name,” stated the Disaster Recovery Ministry Team of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. “Be reminded that our 'neighbor' is not just the members of our church but anyone in the community who needs help.”

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