Coast evacuated as Hurricane Dennis hits southern US

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The Independent US

In one sense, Dennis, which followed a similar path to last September's deadly Hurricane Ivan, is all too familiar for residents along the shoreline from Mississippi east to the Florida panhandle.

The alarm is not merely at the scale of the system ­ a strong Category 3 storm, the third highest rating on the five-grade Saffir-Simpson scale, hundreds of miles across, and with hurricane force winds of at least 75mph reaching 40 miles out from the eye ­ because, bad as it is, Dennis may only be a foretaste of what is to come. Last year was rough, but every projection is that the 2005 season could well be worse.

One reason is the current el Niño/la Niña weather pattern, but another, say many scientists, is global warming, which is raising the temperature of the waters off which hurricanes feed.

After barely more than a month of the June­October hurricane season, there have already been four named storms. Not since 1957 has so strong a hurricane hit the US so early in the season, and never has one struck the Florida/Alabama region.

Over the past two days, Dennis has headed northwest from Haiti, where winds and torrential floods killed 22 people, and across western Cuba, where it is blamed for 10 deaths. It then delivered a glancing blow to the Florida Keys and the southernmost part of the state, before taking aim at the US shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.

Dennis made land just to the east of Pensacola, where debris, tarpaulins in place of ripped-away roofs and boarded-up businesses are still visible testimony to Ivan's violence; 5,000 people made homeless then still live in trailers provided by the federal government.

Even before the worst of the storm hit, massive waves were crashing over Pensacola's sea wall and coastal roads were under water. The city's streets were eerily empty, as many inhabitants obeyed the government's orders to leave or move to a secure location. Officials told those who did stay to write their names in waterproof ink on their chests in case they were killed and had to be identified, a local television station reported.

Although the Miami-based National Hurricane Centre downgraded the storm from category 4 to category 3 before it hit land, it described Dennis as extremely dangerous. "This is a serious situation, but we're prepared," said Michael Chertoff, the Secretary for Homeland Security, stressing that the authorities had taken all possible precautions. Fema, the federal disaster management agency, has laid on shelter, food and other supplies across the region.

As matters stand, the storm will not disrupt Wednesday's scheduled launch of the space shuttle Discovery, the first since the Columbia crash in February 2003. But for hurricane-weary Floridians, that is scant consolation.

The resigned and fateful mood of the state, battered by three major hurricanes in the space of a few weeks less than a year ago, was summed up by Governor Jeb Bush, the President's brother. "I think there's a legitimate feeling," he said.