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Dennis moves inlandafter lashing Gulf Coast

After roaring ashore Sunday afternoon with 120-mph winds, Hurricane Dennis weakened to a tropical storm by Sunday night.

BY SUSAN KIM | ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. | July 10, 2005

"We anticipate a lot of needs in rural areas of Alabama and Mississippi, in addition to the coast."

—Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR

After roaring ashore Sunday afternoon with 120-mph winds, Hurricane Dennis weakened to a tropical storm by Sunday night.

The storm made landfall at nearly the same spot Hurricane Ivan came ashore 10 months ago.

Dennis, which had been a Category 4 hurricane with 145-mph winds, weakened before making landfall at 3:25 p.m. between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach - less than 50 miles east of where Ivan came ashore. At least a half million people were without power by Sunday night.

By 8 p.m. on Sunday, Dennis was reduced to a tropical storm with top sustained winds of 60 mph.

Some local emergency managers from coastal counties indicated there was less damage than there was in Ivan's wake because of the small size and relatively rapid pace of Dennis. But many responders cautioned against such early assessments, expressing concerns about inland flooding and rural residents who could have significant damage that will never make headlines.

Long-term power outages were also a concern, because power companies in the area warned people they could be without power for more than three weeks.

The low-lying community of St. Marks- some 20 miles south of Tallahassee - got hit by a 10-foot tidal surge that caused extensive flooding there. About 40 miles of coastal U.S. Highway 98 was underwater.

Rainfall was about eight inches rather than the expected foot. There were no reports of deaths as of Sunday night but forecasters reminded people it is not over yet. The storm was expected to drop eight inches of rain as it travels over the next few days through Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee into the Ohio Valley.

Nearly 1.8 million people were evacuated before the storm hit. Even police departments that rode out Category 3 Hurricane Ivan last year chose to evacuate in the face of dangerous Dennis.

Representatives from some faith-based and voluntary groups gathered at the state emergency operations center in Tallahassee, where many of them planned to ride out the storm.

Near the Panhandle, responders in the emergency operations center in Escambia County, Fla., watched the eye get close to their area.

Jackie Bell, chair of the interfaith Escambia County Long-Term Recovery Commmittee, said the “sit-and-wait” was going as expected. “I think everybody is in reasonably good spirits now. But we don’t know. We just don’t know yet.

As she spoke, the storm’s eye was about 30 miles southwest of her. The 120-mph winds extended 20 miles from the eye but tropical storm-force winds extend 200 or more miles.

Even those watching live radar from bunkers straight under the storm were debating exactly where landfall was occurring.

Shelter operators indicated shelter counts were down compared to Hurricane Ivan, yet so many towns were completely deserted that emergency management officials said they thought people simply left Alabama, Florida and Mississippi altogether instead of going to public shelters.

Many response groups reported they were riding out the storm safely but had relief supplies ready to roll out as soon as the storm passed.

Salvation Army Relief Teams were heading to Tallahassee in preparation for deployment in the aftermath of the storm.

"It is a matter of safety at this point," says Kevin Smith, disaster services director for The Salvation Army in Florida. "We need to be far enough way to be out of harm’s way, but close enough to respond quickly once it is clear to enter the area and begin to set up our operations."

At the National Response Coordination Center, located within the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C., Tom Hazelwood was representing National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. “We are answering questions and exchanging information with any of our constituencies that are phoning in,” he said, watching the storm make landfall on several news channels simultaneously.

Hazelwood is also executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. UMCOR is prepared to deploy early response teams, he said. “We are coordinating early response teams that will remove debris and distribute cleanup supplies,” he said.

Hazelwood and other responders urged the public to remember that significant needs will exist not only on the coastline but in less visible rural areas further inland in many states. “We anticipate a lot of needs in the rural areas of Alabama and Mississippi, in addition to the coastline,” he said.

Kevin King of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) predicted one of the first responses for MDS would be "huge amounts of tree work. These are not shrubs. These are huge trees that will require heavy equipment to deal with," he said, adding that MDS teams would be deployed as soon as it was safe after the storm.

The Florida Catholic Conference, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and many other denominations were planning to deploy early response teams.

While coastal Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were likely to feel the storm’s earliest worst effects, responding groups urged the public to monitor the storm's track since it had the potential to cause a significant amount of damage inland. In Florida on Sunday afternoon, tornado watches were issued in many counties, and many communities were facing heavy rain and wind gusts. Thirty-foot waves were being recorded about 50 miles offshore.

In some other parts of Florida, overflowing rivers and tidal surges were threatening homes. Water was filling up streets and lapping up to houses, and residents were sandbagging in some communities to ward off the floodwater.

Blamed for at least 20 deaths in Haiti and Cuba, Dennis weakened to a Category 1 storm over Cuba, then retained strength in the Gulf on Saturday and became a Category 4 storm again early Sunday. weakening to a strong Category 3 hurricane just before reaching the coast.

Forecasters were warning that remmants of the storm may produce significant flooding in the Ohio River Valley when it stalls there later this week.

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