HURRICANE Dennis diminishes its strength in Florida, Alabama

Despite fearsome weather in the Caribbean, Dennis proved to be not so strong.
PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) -- Weaker than forecasters feared, Hurricane Dennis dealt the storm-beleaguered Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast only a moderate blow Sunday, sparing the region the widespread destruction wrought by Ivan just 10 months earlier.
Striking less than 50 miles east of where Ivan came ashore, Dennis left more than 500,000 customers without power, and some outages were expected to last at least three weeks. Floodwater inundated the river village of St. Marks and miles of U.S. 98, a coastal highway in the Panhandle.
The fast-moving Category 3 hurricane struck with 120 mph winds but was smaller than its predecessor. Hours after landfall, officials reported little major 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 Navarre home, near where the storm came ashore. "It was more of a show for the kids."
Reducing force
Dennis was responsible for at least 20 deaths in the Caribbean, then grew into a Category 4, 145-mph monster as it marched up the Gulf of Mexico. However, it weakened just before landfall 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 broke loose and bobbed like toys in the roiling ocean.
John Pacholl rode out the storm in his Navarre Beach home.
"I heard sheet metal rip up," he said. "I saw a piece as long as a semi fly up in the air and go about a quarter mile down the road and disappear."
However, hurricane-force winds stretched only 40 miles from the center, compared with 105 miles for Ivan, and Dennis moved at nearly 20 mph. Maximum 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.
By 11 p.m., Dennis had weakened to a tropical storm over southwest Alabama with 60 mph winds. As it moved northward, the hurricane's next-biggest threat -- tornadoes -- took over. Tornado watches and warnings were posted as far north as Atlanta.
Damage dealt
Dennis caused an estimated $1 billion to $2.5 billion in insured damage in the United States, according to AIR Worldwide Corp. of Boston, an insurance risk modeling company.
In Fort Lauderdale, a man was electrocuted when he stepped on a power line brought down by strong winds. He had been heading toward a house for shelter and apparently didn't see the streetlight cable on the ground, police spokesman Bill Schultz said.
Ivan 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."
Some of the worst damage occurred in St. Marks, south of Tallahassee, where a marina, other businesses and homes flooded. Roads into the fishing town were impassable, and there was flooding in the coastal towns of Shell Point and Oyster Bay.
Flooding on U.S. 98, a major coastal highway in the Panhandle, cut off main routes into beach communities.
However, 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.

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