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Dennis spreads across Southeast

Bush declares disaster as hurricane weakens to tropical storm

Hurricane Dennis is seen in this satellite image taken Sunday after the storm moved into Alabama.


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Hurricane Dennis

PENSACOLA, Florida (CNN) -- Hurricane Dennis weakened to a tropical storm Sunday night after sweeping ashore with winds up to 120 mph, causing power outages and flooding in the Florida Panhandle and lower Alabama.

But the storm spared the area from the kind of damage Hurricane Ivan inflicted last year.

The eye of the storm -- then a Category 3 -- made landfall at 2:25 p.m. (3:25 p.m. ET) between the towns of Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach on Santa Rosa Island, the National Hurricane Center in Miami reported.

As it came ashore, crossed the western Florida Panhandle and headed north into Alabama, the storm snapped limbs, tore off roofs and knocked out power to more than 250,000 residents, local officials told CNN.

As of 11 p.m. ET, Dennis had top sustained winds of near 50 mph and was centered about 25 miles southeast of Demopolis, Alabama, moving north-northwest at about 16 mph, the hurricane center said.

Florida authorities received no reports of deaths or injuries, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings said.

Alabama Homeland Security Director Jim Walker said no deaths were reported in his state, either. But he added, "There are still parts of Alabama that still have got to get through the dangers of this storm."

Forecasters also warned that Dennis remained a powerful storm as it spread across the Southeast.

Tornado warnings were posted Sunday night and Monday for central and northern Alabama, central and northern Mississippi and the western Tennessee Valley.

"People really need to know that this hurricane is not done by any means," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.

Dennis hit less than 50 miles east of where Hurricane Ivan, another Category 3 storm, struck last September. Some Panhandle residents who endured Ivan said Dennis did not dump as much rain.

But high waters did engulf low-lying communities in Wakulla County, at the eastern end of the Panhandle about 20 miles south of Tallahassee and 150 miles east of Pensacola, authorities said.

Wakulla County Sheriff's Maj. Maurice Langston said the towns of St. Marks, Shell Point, Oyster Bay and Panacea were cut off by storm surges of more than 10 feet -- the area's biggest flood since the 1920s, he said.

Farther west along the coast in Bay County, a "significant number of homes and businesses" were flooded in Panama City, Panama City Beach and Lynn Haven, said an emergency services spokesman.

High winds inflicted severe damage on an Econo Lodge motel in Crestview, about 50 miles northeast of Pensacola in Okaloosa County, ripping away a large section of roof.

Elsewhere in the county, U.S. Highway 98 between Destin and Fort Walton Beach was flooded, a government spokeswoman said.

Disaster declared

President Bush declared portions of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi major disaster areas, said Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We'll start helping individuals immediately," he said.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, said Florida learned from Ivan and three other hurricanes that hit the state last year.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was prepared to bring food, water and medical supplies into the affected areas as soon as the weather cleared.

At least 500,000 people fled the Gulf Coast as Dennis approached, and Jennings pleaded with residents who had evacuated not to return home immediately.

"We're encouraging people to stay where you are until [Monday]," she said. "The individual counties will tell you when the evacuation orders are over."

Mayfield said the threat of tornadoes, downed power lines and falling trees continued to pose risks to residents farther inland even as the storm lost steam.

Jennings said Florida had prepared well for the emergency, with 2,600 National Guard troops ready to be dispatched to affected areas.

'We were very lucky'

In Pensacola, Mayor John Fogg said storm damage appeared limited to old-growth pines that snapped, hurling limbs into homes.

Much of the city was without power, but he called his city's residents fortunate.

"We thought the eye was going to pass to the west of us," which would have inflicted maximum damage on Pensacola, Fogg said. "Just at the last moment, the storm turned to the north and the eye went right into Pensacola Bay."

Still, he urged the area's 400,000 residents to stay indoors. "There's a lot of hazards out there," he said.

Dennis appeared to have been less destructive than Ivan, said Edwin Eddy, city manager of Gulf Breeze, Pensacola's southern neighbor.

"We were very lucky," said Eddy, who rode out the storm inside city hall, about five miles west of where the eye passed. "It was so fast-moving, we didn't take a beating."

The storm wobbled most of Sunday morning before hitting land east of predictions. A few hours before landfall, Dennis had been classified a Category 4 storm, with top winds of 145 mph. It was blamed for 32 deaths in Haiti and Cuba. (Full story)

Local officials said Gulf Coast residents were more willing to evacuate due to lessons learned from Hurricane Ivan.

" 'Evacuation' to people after Ivan means, 'Get out of Dodge,' " said Matthew Lopez, director of emergency management in Florida's Escambia County. (Safety tips)

Ivan left billions of dollars in damage and was blamed for at least 56 deaths in the United States and more than 60 in Jamaica and Grenada. (Trail of destruction)

New storm forms

Meanwhile, forecasters at the hurricane center were monitoring another tropical system that appeared headed for the Caribbean Sea, Mayfield said.

Tropical depression 5 formed off the western coast of Africa and could drift into the Caribbean within four days, Mayfield said.

If it develops into a tropical storm, the system would be named Emily -- the fifth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.

"They're just moving off like clockwork here," Mayfield said.

Dennis' formation on July 5 made that the earliest date on record that four named storms formed in the Atlantic basin, the hurricane center said.

CNN's Randi Kaye, Rick Sanchez, Anderson Cooper, John Zarrella and Dan Lothian contributed to this report.

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