Hurricane Dennis Approaches Landfall on Gulf Coast

Hurricane Dennis gathered strength overnight as it moved north in the Gulf of Mexico. The full force of the storm is expected to hit the U.S. mainland along the Florida, Alabama and Mississippi coast Sunday afternoon. Sandra Averhart of member station WUWF in Pensacola, Fla., talks to guest host Sheilah Kast about evacuation efforts.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

Hurricane Dennis gathered strength overnight as it moved north in the Gulf of Mexico. With winds registering as high as 145 miles per hour, Dennis returned to Category 4 strength after weakening earlier in the weekend. The full force of the storm is expected to hit the US mainland along the Florida, Alabama and Mississippi coast sometime this afternoon. Dennis already has claimed at least 20 lives. Ten people died in Haiti when the storm flooded large areas of the island and swept one bridge into a river. And on Friday, Dennis killed at least 10 people in Cuba and destroyed hundreds of homes along the island's southeastern coast.

The Associated Press reported that at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base a lifeguard tower was blown over. But a military spokesman told the AP there were no casualties among military personnel or the hundreds of detainees held at the base.

Dennis dealt a glancing blow to the Florida Keys yesterday, but did extensive damage. In Key West, power was knocked out to the entire city and streets were flooded with more than a foot of water.

Sandra Averhart, of member station WUWF in Pensacola, Florida, joins us now.

Sandra, what's the situation in Pensacola right now?

SANDRA AVERHART reporting:

Well, the winds are starting to pick up and there's a steady rain at this time.

KAST: OK. And winds picked up. What kind of damage is that causing? What's it like on the streets?

AVERHART: Well, it's hard to say at this point. Basically, the streets are quiet. I just got a report from the sheriff's office, the sheriff himself of Escambia County, Florida, indicating that the roads are pretty well clear of citizens at this point and that deputies are encountering no problems at this point. So the point being that most people are sheltered in now and we're in basically a wait-and-see mode.

KAST: Is it your impression that very many people are waiting the storm out at home?

AVERHART: I--yes. I do get that impression. Now, of course, we have the coastal areas which have been evacuated, and gladly, a lot of people have heeded the warnings and the lessons learned from Hurricane Ivan and they have boarded up their homes and left the area or moved to higher ground within the communities here locally along the Florida-Alabama Gulf Coast. And so most people have heeded those warnings and are generally out of harm's way, although we know that this storm is not going to just have a coastal impact.

KAST: You mentioned Hurricane Ivan, less than a year ago. How does this compare to that?

AVERHART: Well, this storm is a lot like that. It's a little bit stronger. It is taking the same general path, unfortunately; we didn't think lightning would strike twice in the same place so soon. But it is taking the same path within a few miles right along the Florida-Alabama coast. The one thing that is different is--or two things--it's moving a little faster than Ivan was moving and its eye wall is smaller. It covers about 40 miles out from the center with hurricane-force winds. Hurricane Ivan was much larger; more than 60 miles wide.

KAST: So does that mean that Dennis is likely to cause less damage?

AVERHART: Well, I'm not sure I can say that. There are concerns about the storm surge, of course. Reflecting back on Ivan, a lot of areas have been left without a dune system to, you know, at least be the first line of defense from the storm surge. And there is debris all around our coastal areas left over from Hurricane Ivan. And this thing is expected to bring a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet, so I'm really not sure what to expect. But our officials think that it could be just as devastating.

KAST: Sandra Averhart is news director at member station WUWF in Pensacola, Florida. Thanks very much.

AVERHART: Thank you, Sheilah.

KAST: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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