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Hurricane Dennis Closes In

Aired July 10, 2005 - 14:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CO-HOST: Well, there's a sign that kind of says it all: "Don't be a menace, Dennis." But of course, the truth ask, Dennis is. Florida's Panhandle, first ever Category 4 hurricane is closing in on that part of the world. It will make landfall very soon.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CO-HOST: It is already lashing the region with ferocious winds and sheets of rain. We are tracking, of course, the storm's every move.

Welcome to CNN's continuing coverage of Hurricane Dennis. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

M. O'BRIEN: And I'm Miles O'Brien. This is your hurricane headquarters, and we're glad you're with us.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, the very worse is still yet to come. But it's about to come. A menacing and threatening Hurricane Dennis is approaching the Florida Panhandle. Now, Dennis, a Category 4 storm packing 140 mile an hour winds as it barrels toward the shoreline. Emergency officials are telling people who have not evacuated it's too late now. Hunker down and stay put.

M. O'BRIEN: Correspondents we have up and down the Gulf Coast, Florida, and into Alabama, getting pummeled as we speak. Before we go to them and see what it's like there right on the ground or a little bit above the ground, let's check in in the weather center. Had a little shift change up there. Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras there now -- Jacqui.


Closing in. Very close, probably just a couple of hours away now before the eye wall. That's this area. See the bright red on your map. That's going to be the biggest area of concern. We haven't seen the 2 p.m. Eastern Time update yet for the position from the National Hurricane Center, but our tightened radar estimating only 22 miles away from the shoreline.

It's taken this little bit of a jog on up to the north. So unless we see it move a little more westward as this thing moves at about 18 miles per hour. We're talking there it is, about an hour and 25 minutes or so before some of the worst conditions are going to be making their way on shore.

So we're really getting into the nitty-gritty at this hour. Certainly, we're seeing the tropical storm force wind gusts throughout much of the day along the coast line.

And as these squaw lines, these outer bands move through, we can expect to see 50, 60-mile-per-hour gusts. The maximum sustained winds holding steady at 135-miles-per-hour. And one hour from now, we'll get an update on that from the National Hurricane Center.

We've seen a slight weakening trend, but either way you look at it, this is a major hurricane. This is going to be making landfall very shortly. Certainly, a very dangerous catastrophic situation that we're dealing with here for today.

Forecast track, I was to talk a little bit about what's going to be happening after landfall. We've been talking so much about what's just going to be happening here the next couple of hours.

I want you those of you who live inland to really be paying attention to this storm. You say, "Oh, I live in Memphis. No big deal." "I live up there in Cincinnati. I don't need to worry about a hurricane." Yes do you. Because look at the forecast track of this. And not only is it going to be moving up into your neighborhood, but it's going to be stalling out. So this has significant flood problems expected in the Ohio Valley later on in the week -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Jacqui Jeras, we'll check back here with you later. Thank you very much -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: I think she makes a really good point, which it is not the time to start breathing easily if you think you're not in the path or if you think you're further enough inland that you're not going to get hit. Because obviously, as we have seen time and time again, that can happen.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, it is our tendency in these situations to focus on its arrival on shore. But as you saw in that graphic there it's a Category 2 hurricane well inland, tropical storm way deep and then a really significant low pressure storm, you know, all the way up to the mid section of the country.

S. O'BRIEN: Not to mention all the tornadoes that are spawning. I think hundreds of tornadoes with Hurricane Ivan, which in some cases did the primary damage. Some people who lost a lot or lost everything, actually, Ivan wasn't their problem. It was a big old tornado that hit them.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: We have correspondents that are up and down all along the Gulf Coast. CNN's Anderson Cooper and John Zarrella in Pensacola for us. They've been there for the better part of the last couple of hours or so. You guys, last time we talked the winds were consistently 50-miles-per-hour. What's it now, do you think? Picking up?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Low 60s, consistently in the low 60s, high 50s. So high tropical storm force winds sustained. ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": You know, it's fascinating, too, Soledad. Because after awhile you kind of get used to it, you know? I mean, after awhile, 60, you're kind of like oh, yes, it's same old thing. But you know, you forget how powerful these things are.

John keeps taking some of the measurements.

I just want to show you two shots of this gas station. First the roof shot, which we are watching very closely. This overhang on the gas station which we are afraid this thing may just rip off as these winds pick up.

And then this other shot that Emmanuel has. You can see already things have started to rip off. There's one of the gas pumps. Some of the facade of it has been ripped off. There's some sheathing, as well, that is flapping around there. And that is just beginning. I mean, you can imagine, that's with, you know, 50-mile-per-hour sustained winds. Once we get 70, 80, 90, 100, a lot is going to flash on.

ZARRELLA: Yes. Because as soon as that eye wall comes on shore, you know, those hurricane force winds increase so dramatically, so quickly. And if we happened to be in the eye wall -- you know, it's a good point for any viewer out there. Again, we always remind people if you get in that calm, "Oh, gee it's over." Well, it may not be the case. That's the eye wall. And when that backside hits, you don't build up gradually to the strong winds you get it right away. The worst of it really passed on that backside.

COOPER: The last tracking we had was that 130,000 people in Florida are without power. At this point, that number has probably gone up. That was a reading I had about two hours ago. We haven't gotten any updated figures on that; maybe you all have.

But again, people just waiting for this storm to really hit home. It is -- it is moving fast. The waves are really now starting to come in in this Escambia Bay.

ZARRELLA: You can see, it's not just even white caps there. The dirt. It's literally on top of -- the Brown on the white caps. That's the foam and the dirt that's being just swept all around here.

COOPER: And some of that sand, which you're seeing now, that is just been picked up by this wind. And it's just flowing around all over the place. One of those things you don't really think about. There's also, you know, it's amazing how much stuff gets ripped off.

The Ramada Hotel, which is across the way from us, they have a sign which is already down on the ground there on the grass. That's gone down in the last, I guess two hours or so. And, obviously, they have sort of a sign up there that's just going to get ripped apart.

ZARRELLA: A big Ramada sign, you know, survived from Hurricane Ivan, but yesterday when I came over and I saw that, it was a little disconcerting. I was concerned about that. COOPER: So we are just waiting for the storm. We think this is pretty much the area we feel we're going to be pretty much right in the storm's path. And we will try to stay on the air as long as we can, Miles.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, guys, thanks a lot. We'll continue to follow whatever progress you're making there. And I see that as the wind picks up it's going to a little bit difficult, not only physically for you to stay where you are, but I think the technology is going to be a little bit difficult, too.

Thanks a lot, you guys. And be safe, of course. Watch that gas station. It sounds a little tricky up there.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. That roof looks like it might give way any minute now.

Of course, to the east of the eye is the scary place to be, because of the counterclockwise rotation of the hurricane. And that means that Ft. Walton Beach, Mary Esther, Florida, specifically where Alina Cho is, is in for a battering. Alina is joining us once again from the parking lot there.

It looks like it's gotten a lot worst in the past 20 minutes or so, Alina.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly has. Winds have picked up quite a bit, Miles. Our best guess is maybe wind gusts of about 60-miles-per-hour.

We have just lost power at the hotel. And county officials in Okaloosa County told us that they are experiencing sporadic power outages here.

I'm going to walk over here to this road here, which is right behind us at the hotel. It's Highway 98. And essentially parts of Highway 98 near Destin, Florida, have been shut down at this point. So have some of the bridges.

And what -- what we're looking at now is a mandatory evacuation order just south of where we are, south of the highway. So that is the dividing point. There is also going to be a curfew in place starting at 6 p.m. this evening until further notice.

And officials locally tell us at this point, it is simply too late to leave. Their best advice is to stay put, don't go anywhere and try to stay dry, which I'm not doing a very good job of at this point.

As you know, Miles and Soledad, this area has been hit by Hurricane Ivan about 10 months ago, so they are quite familiar with these types of conditions. I can tell you that many of the businesses have been boarded up.

Really, we've been hearing this a lot from other correspondents. Really like a ghost town here, essentially. Our hotel manager has boarded up the windows around the lobby. He has said that he lived through Ivan here at the hotel. He's not taking another chance. He simply said, "I'm closing up shop." The front desk will be closed until after this storm is over.

I also talked to a man who is staying here at the hotel. He is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He told me he came down to Florida with his wife to close on a beach-front property here, but he said that that closing was delayed due to the hurricane.

And so when I asked him, "Are you still going to close on the house?"

He said, "We'll have to wait and see until after the storm," Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Wait and see if it's still there, I guess.

All right, Alina Cho, thank you very much. Take it easy there. Put that hood up, will you?


M. O'BRIEN: You don't want to get yourself too wet there. Honestly, I'm worried about you there. Much better. Much better. All right, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: That is -- that is very tough with the wind. Might be rethinking beach-front property in that area.

M. O'BRIEN: I think that would -- that would cause you to think twice.

S. O'BRIEN: We want to check in with Lieutenant Greg Rincon. He's from the Panama City Beach and fire rescue. I don't know if we -- do we have him by phone? We've got him. There he is.

Thanks for talking with us, sir. We appreciate it. How are things looking where you are? Mostly, are you seeing people around or pretty much the streets are clear, everybody is inside now?

LT. GREG RINCON, PANAMA CITY BEACH FIRE & RESCUE: Most everybody is (AUDIO GAP) a few people on (AUDIO GAP)...

S. O'BRIEN: Well, that was my fear, that we were going to have a little trouble with him. Let's see if we can raise him again or we can get him by phone.

M. O'BRIEN: He's back.

S. O'BRIEN: Lieutenant Rincon, there you are. You're back with us. Same question to you. How is it looking?

RINCON: Most people have gone indoors. A few people on the roadways, not as many. The winds have picked up quite a bit. (AUDIO GAP) S. O'BRIEN: Again, a little bit of a trouble. All right. Let's see if we can get him to phone back in to us, because it looks like we're having some trouble with that.

M. O'BRIEN: You know, really, up to this point, we've had a pretty good record with this kind of stuff..

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: ... when you talk about 50 to 60 mile an hour winds. But then it starts to go into a -- into a realm where the gear really starts to break down.

Pensacola, of course, has been a lot of our focus here. It looks as if it may bear the brunt of the storm. That's certainly where things seem to be shaping up to be the problem. Only 10 months ago, we were telling you all about Hurricane Ivan, same spot, almost precisely the same spot.

Dan Thomas from our affiliate WEAR, a place that has been very helpful to us all day, and we thank them for that, filed this report earlier from Pensacola.


DAN THOMAS, REPORTER, WEAR: First, let me show you what it's like down here. The seas have really picked up here. We're seeing some pretty -- somewhat aggressive wave action coming in here, the worst that we've seen all day.

Of course, right now this is about as bad as it was at the height of Tropical Storm Arlene. Of course, we rode that out on the beach. Keep in mind I'm in downtown Pensacola right here.

This area during Ivan was completely eroded. This sidewalk that I'm standing on right now was gone. This is a brand new sidewalk. It even ate into the asphalt. Of course, most locals here will remember that it was several months before they could even open this area back up for traffic along here. The southern two lanes were completely gone.

So, so far, we're seeing increased wind speed. The rain really is starting to sting quite a bit.

Joining me now is Police Chief John Mathis. And one thing that we have seen a lot so far down here is the presence of law enforcement. What are you all trying to do down here?

CHIEF JOHN MATHIS, PENSACOLA POLICE: Well, right now we're just trying to maintain and keep people, you know, safe out here this afternoon. You know? We get a lot of cooperation from the public. As you can see, there's really just police and news people for the large part. And sightseers are staying away. And we have shut down the bay bridge at this point.

THOMAS: We have seen a few sightseers. Is that -- are you pulling them over? Are you going to make any arrests?

MATHIS: No. At this point there's no law against them riding around. We're just urging people to stay home. You know, it's very dangerous conditions, as you can see. And you know, won't be much longer and we'll be pulling our officers off the streets, as well.

THOMAS: Do you anticipate any sort of law enforcement issues out here, looting or anything?

MATHIS: Well, we've got a plan in place for that, you know, already. We've got officers assigned strictly for that duty once the hurricane passes, and hopefully, you know, if they take that -- decide to do that, we'll be there to take course of action against them.


M. O'BRIEN: All right. It's not against the law to take a peek. It's not against the law to, I guess, sometimes act kind of silly, too. So if you're thinking about going outside, just think twice and stay in and watch it from this viewpoint right here, so long as the juice holds out.

And WEAR, which just provided that report to us, has their tower cam still going. I would have bet against this thing working still at this point. Because if the winds are 50-60 miles an hour down near the surface where our folks with the wind gauges and the animometers (ph) have been, the wind up there has got to be getting close to 75, maybe higher. So -- at this point, maybe even getting higher than that. So we're glad we can still see it, but just not much to see there except a lot of very mean surf.

S. O'BRIEN: And it's only going to get worse. So we are expecting Hurricane Dennis to hit this region hard, slam right into the coast. And then, as everyone has been telling us, travel inland as a Category 2 hurricane, which carries a pretty big wallop.

So we are watching and waiting here and along with everybody else everywhere else, trying to see what damage is going to happen and wishing the very best for the folks that are there.

Ahead, this afternoon, we're going to be talking to Mike Brown of FEMA. What's in place for the folks who will be the hardest hit in Pensacola and the regions near there. That's coming up next on in our special extended weekend edition of AMERICAN MORNING. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Well, if you've been to the Gulf Coast of Florida, you've spent some time on Highway 98. It's kind of the main east-west road which takes you across those -- all those wonderful beaches which, today, that road is pretty well deserted, except if you were there, you would see an intrepid Hummer with a rather odd-looking antenna on the roof. We're calling it Hurricane One.

It is staffed by photographer Stuart Clark (ph), and correspondent Rick Sanchez, who really basically grew up in hurricanes in South Florida and knows a lot about what he speaks and has spent his day just trying to get as close to this storm as possible. Yes, it's a living, folks.

And here is Rick. Hopefully, he can hear us and tell us what he's been seeing.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We can hear you, Miles. And you hear so much when you listen to some of the experts over the National Hurricane Center talk about storm surge. Storm surge this and storm surge that. Well, folks and Miles O'Brien, you're looking at a storm surge.

This is what was Highway 98, what was a passable road that is now essentially underwater. Thanks to the fact that we're in a very large and heavy SUV, we've been able to come as close as we can. Were we to continue, were we to continue going in that direction, we would be completely blocked off, because the water is just too deep.

But folks, this is salt water, all right? And it's -- it's essentially the Gulf of Mexico it has overtaken the land and has now also overtaken Highway 98. And this is now an impassible road.

And as you can see, when Stuart goes over to the left, those are large waves. We're on the surface of the road, so we're able to stay a little bit higher. If I was to walk about that direction, which I'm not going to do, I would probably be beyond my waist, maybe all the way up to my chest in water. And it's moving very, very quickly.

We have just come up on Highway 98. We passed through Destin. We've already started to see -- I mean, this thing is coming ashore, folks.

And what we're seeing is the first types of damage that you're used to seeing in hurricanes like this. We saw stop lights that are just dangling in the wind now. They've been knocked down. We saw about 15 trees that have been completely leveled and thrown over by the storm. We have also just seen -- we're recorded some of this and we'll be sending it back to you in a little bit, Miles.

We also saw in a gas station the pumps where you get your gas have been just completely torn off the ground and thrown onto the ground. And they're sitting in that direction now.

And moments ago, we got a report that in Crestview, which seems to be about 40 miles north of Destin, a hotel with some hundred people in it had the roof ripped off, according to preliminary reports. We're going to head out there and check it out now. Those hundred people have been removed from the hotel. They've been taken to a shelter. And I don't know if emergency officials have been able to make their way out there now.

That's the situation here near Ft. Walton Beach, where we are really starting to get hammered by this thing -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Rick Sanchez. Stay close. And it doesn't look like you're going to be moving forward any time soon, so we want to check back in with you in just a moment.

We have another interview. We want to talk to the head of FEMA here. But we'll check back in with you in just a moment -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: That is just incredible to see him slogging through the water. That is the highway he's going across.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: That is pretty remarkable.

All right. The federal emergency management officials are certainly very busy today. They're preparing to respond to the damage from Hurricane Dennis. FEMA director Michael Brown joins us from the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Nice to see you, Mr. Brown. Thanks for talking with us. The worst, obviously, is yet to come, still. But so far, are you satisfied with the way things are going?

MICHAEL BROWN, FEMA DIRECTOR: I'm very satisfied so far. I mean, the evacuations have gone well. I think people are paying attention other than a reporter I saw on CNN who's standing out in a roadway full of water. People are paying attention about getting away from the dangers of the storm.

I say that a little bit in jest, but people need to recognize how serious this storm is. The winds are very strong. There's a lot of moisture being packed with the storm. And so I think we're going to see a lot of damage inland also. So we're ready to respond on both the east sides and west sides of the storm. We've got our logistics, medical personnel, our rescue teams in place. We're ready to go.

S. O'BRIEN: Duly noted about the CNN reporter.

BROWN: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: And I will be certain to pass that word along to Mr. Sanchez next we talk to him. In all seriousness, though, you talked about the things that you have in place to be able to mobilize immediately once the storm passes. What exactly, specifically do you have?

BROWN: Well, first and foremost, we have all the commodities in place. The water, the ice, the meals ready to eat, cots, tents, bedding, everything we need to sustain life.

But we also have in place, unfortunately, those things we may need like the urban search and rescue teams to get into neighborhoods, to get into buildings to try to rescue people.

And then we have our national disaster medical system, which are volunteers of doctors and teams from all over the country ready to respond, because we know that some hospitals may be without power. There may be people we have injured people that we cannot get to a medical facility. So we send those teams in to do that kind of life sustaining effort right where the storm hits.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's say, hypothetically, although I think the weather center is kind of backing me up on this one, that Pensacola ends up being just plowed by this storm. How quickly can your teams that are standing by get right into Pensacola to help the folks out there?

BROWN: Well, actually, our rapid needs assessment team will be in there as soon as -- as soon as it's safe to do so. So after the eye of the storm and the wall has passed, they may be in there within 30 minutes or just a couple of hours. The rescue teams can be in there anywhere from two to 40 hours.

So we're ready to move as rapidly as possible, keeping in mind that I've got to keep those teams safe, because I don't want them themselves to become victims of the hurricane.

S. O'BRIEN: No question about that. Mike Brown, who's the head of FEMA, thanks for talking with us.

BROWN: Thank you, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: And obviously, we're going to continue to check in with you throughout the afternoon.

BROWN: My pleasure.

S. O'BRIEN: Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Something that is important to point out here. There are people who are putting themselves in harm's way, aside from our reporters, who are there to tell you the story. And we give them a tip of the hat, because they really are out there risking a lot, in some cases for people who didn't heed some warnings, quite frankly.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, in cases there are true 911 emergencies that also happen. I mean, it is no surprise that people have heart attacks and people have a lot of stress and outside of just idiots who are out on the -- not speaking about our own intrepid reporters, obviously. But people who should have evacuated and did not evacuate and have now put themselves and others in danger. You know there are people in serious emergencies.

And of course, that's a tough call. Later, if we can get our lieutenant from the police department back up again and ask him at what point do you decide, you know, it is too risky for me to send my guys out, my men and women out to help out?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. That's a tough call, isn't it?

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. It sure is.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. You're watching complete coverage of Hurricane Dennis on CNN. There's no place you need turn to besides us. Look at that shot from Pensacola, Soledad. S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Really deteriorating since we've been showing you that. And we have been looking at this from our affiliate WEAR for literally hours. And in the last couple of hours, gotten a lot worse, gotten a lot windier. And the surf has risen.

We're going to continue to monitor not only the shot, obviously, but the situation in Pensacola. And all the areas around there as Hurricane Dennis is about to roll onto the shore.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's try to do a time lapse with that. Maybe we can do that a little later.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.


S. O'BRIEN: Hurricane Dennis, it is certain to be a killer storm. At least we're getting that word from the experts. Technically, it is a Category 4 bordering, though, on a Category 5. Hurricane Dennis is the kind of storm that can level entire towns.

Some people haven't evacuated, but those who have not need at this point need to just hunker down and stay put -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. We're going to check in now -- we've been checking in, as a matter of fact, all day with some people who made the decision -- and you can judge them for what you will -- who made the decision, based on the information they had, to stay in their homes.

We spoke to a woman not too long ago who was on the eighth floor of a condo on the beach. And it was her decision that that was actually safer than going to another place she could have gone inland, because it was so high up. Of course, the eighth floor is a place where the wind can be a lot stronger.

So joining us on the line now is Charles Smith. He's in Navarre, Florida. Charles, where are you right now? And what are you seeing and hearing?

CHARLES SMITH, NAVARRE RESIDENT: Well, right now, I'm in my kitchen, listening to the wind howl around the house and the trees blowing around. But we got all of the windows taped and everything. And we're pretty well secured. We've got a walk-in closet that we got a mattress and a sleeping bag for a little safe room in case we need to go in there in case it gets worse.

M. O'BRIEN: And why did you decide to stay there?

SMITH: Well I was in the military 24 years. I've been through typhoons over in like Okanola (ph) where you could not escape or run away or anything and I was, through Ivan so me and my wife just decided to stay home and ride it out. We're watching it. We got a neighbor across the street that we're watching her also. She stayed, too.

M. O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, HURRICANE DENNIS: So far, do you think you made the right decision, Charles?

SMITH: Yes, I do.

M. O'BRIEN: Because I'm looking at this little narrow spit of land that you're on right there, that Barrier Island there. That storm surge, we just saw Rick Sanchez along that road there, it just overtaking. How high above sea level are you right now?

SMITH: I'm about a mile and a half from the water. I'm about -- I'm on the north side of Highway 98.

M. O'BRIEN: OK, so you're a little bit inland.

SMITH: Yes, sir.

M. O'BRIEN: You're not on that spit of land there?

SMITH: I'm not right on the beach. Like I said, I'm on the mainland.

M. O'BRIEN: OK, well that makes a big difference.

SMITH: Yes, sir. If I was on the beach, I would of been long gone.

M. O'BRIEN: OK, what about your neighbors? Have they made a similar decision? What are you thoughts on that?

SMITH: We got some of our neighbors that left but we got neighbors across the street on both of them who have stayed. Well, one, because he had to lock up the business where he works at and everything else, so he decided to stay. The other one really didn't have anyplace to go, so they decided to stay.

M. O'BRIEN: O'BRIEN: All right.

SMITH: But like I said, we decided to stay because, like I said, I was in the Philippines, my wife was in the Philippines, we decided to stay because we've been through these things before overseas so we decided to ride it out. We feel safe.

O'BRIEN: Well, it's a big killer storm and we're told by the experts, Charles, even though you're a mile and a half in, you're going to get a real battering there so we do invite you to take every precaution and stay away from windows. Check back in with us later, will you?

SMITH: Yes, sir, I will.

O'BRIEN: All right Charles Smith is in Navarre Beach or actually just off the beach in Navarre, Florida. Thanks very much.

SMITH: Yes, sir.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, HURRICANE DENNIS: A little further west we find CNN's Dan Lothian in Mobile, Alabama. Hey Dan, how are the conditions now? Looks like things are getting worse.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Things are getting worse. And keep in mind that we are off Mobile Bay about five to six miles inland in downtown, Mobile. The wind and the rain really picking up now here. I want to talk about something that you were talking about just a few minutes ago about how emergency personnel have to go out and brave this kind of weather to respond to your basic calls and that is something that we saw a few minutes ago when a fire truck came racing by here, we inquired as to what was going on. We were told that there was someone who needed attention inside one of the local motels. So they had to respond. That's a critical question for law enforcement and for the emergency personnel is at what point do they stop responding to some of these calls?

Because they are putting their own lives in danger. Now, to also talk about this other issue that you've been discussing recently which are people who are staying put. We also went and visited with a family not too far away from here. They live right on the river. They are staying put. They have stayed put through every hurricane that they have seen this the past ten years. I asked him why do this? Because even tropical storm Cindy caused quite a bit of water damage, water coming up to their home. I said why are you staying there? He said, well, because every time you have a storm that hits, it takes such a long time before you can get back into your home, that we decided just to stay here.

They have taken all of the precautions that they can. They have boarded up their windows and they have areas will they will go away from the windows to the back of the house if it gets really bad but they feel like they need to stay home throughout the storm.

Again, it is really kicking up here in Mobile. Emergency officials hopeful that they have everything in place to handle whatever the impact will be of the storm. First of all, they think there will be a lot of debris on the ground. They also feel like there could be some medical issues so they have appealed to the federal government to help them out with not only urban search and rescue teams but also medical teams that will be able to assist if needed here in Mobile.

S. O'BRIEN: Well Dan I hope that family has made the right call and in retrospect ends up being the right thing to do. How many families are like that family you talked to? Have you seen a lot of people or have you heard of a lot of people who are just staying indoors or have most of them actually gotten out?

LOTHIAN: Well, from talking to emergency management officials, they say that most of the people who needed to get out of areas that they were concerned about did get out. In fact, they had a couple of shelters that they opened up very late, sort of the last call shelters that they opened up. They said they had about 5,500 people or so who did move into those shelters. Those were some of the last folks who did get into a shelter so they feel like most of the folks who should have gotten away from the areas that they are very concerned about did get out but there are those like the gentleman I told you about and his family who are staying put. And of course that's not something the experts are advising.

S. O'BRIEN: Sure aren't but we wish them the very best. As Miles has said stay away from the windows and take the best care you can. Dan Lothian for us in Mobile, Alabama. Dan thanks. We'll continue to check in with you. Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Lets go back to the National Hurricane Center where they are very busy, to say the least. This is what they train for, what they work for, what they study about. The director of the facility is Max Mayfield. He joins us once again. We also have as you can see there, we also have kind of in and out is Chad Myers who is in Panama City -- well, we'll see if we can get him.

Let's start with you, Max. Hopefully, Chad's signal will lock up a little bit better. Panama City is obviously getting quite a battering as well. It looks like the eye is just now about to make landfall. Is that correct?

MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: That's right. A little bit good news if you look at the satellite image behind me, you see the eye is not near as distinct. It is weakening some. That's great news. But I don't want to overdo that. It's still a very powerful hurricane on the radar loop. You can see it very well defined. It looks like it's more to the north and that means it's going to hit the Santa Rosa Island and Navarre Beach area and Mary Esther over towards Port (INAUDIBLE) Beach primarily.

M. O'BRIEN: All right we just were talking with somebody in Navarre Beach in Navarre, Florida. Actually he was about a mile and a half inland. And I hope he is listening Charles Smith is his name. He thinks he's OK a mile and a half inland. What do you think, Max?

MAYFIELD: I hope Mr. Smith really honkers down. The really extreme winds of this hurricane, the category 3-hurricane force winds that little doughnut there around the eye is a very, very small area and that is definitely going over Navarre Beach. He needs to be hunkered down. The winds will pick up rapidly within the next hour.

M. O'BRIEN: All right I'm going to take a chance to see if we can raise Chad Myers here. Max if you would bear with us here, if you would.


M. O'BRIEN: Chad can you hear us OK? Do you have any questions for Max Mayfield?

CHAD MYERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Max we talked about this storm really not following a -- a wobbler, left, right, the west. What's it doing now? And how has that affected the computer -- forecast down there at the Hurricane Center?

M. O'BRIEN: Did you get enough of that, Max?

MAYFIELD: I think I got enough of that he cut out occasionally there, but most hurricanes go through a little wobble like this, a little bit left and little bit right. This is not any surprise whatsoever. We've been talking to the emergency managers in Florida and Alabama all week long actually and they're very aware that these hurricanes can wobble like this.

Still well within, in fact, it's right smack dab in the middle of the hurricane warning area. Hopefully people have heeded the advice of their local officials and are hunkering down right now. They need to stay hunkered down, even the Southside even for Chad way over there to the east in Panama City over here, you still need to be aware here. As long as we have these winds here that we're going to have coastal problems and then, of course, it's going to spread well inland. The hurricane force winds will be spreading inland over much of southwestern Alabama and even up into eastern Mississippi before it's all over.

M. O'BRIEN: All right so just to button this up, Max, just to make it clear, what we're seeing now is the beginning of the worst moments for landfall at this point?


M. O'BRIEN: These are the darkest hours, aren't they?

MAYFIELD: That's right. The only good news I can think of here is that the really strong winds of this very, very small doughnut right here that is going to go in between Pensacola and Ft. Walton Beach.

M. O'BRIEN: Max Mayfield is the director of the National Hurricane Center. He will be watching this closely from his perch. Chad, I don't know -- are we -- were you able to hear much of that? Chad, are you there?

MYERS: I -- I--

M. O'BRIEN: We're just going to have to work on Chad's signal. We may or may not have the ability to talk to Chad again. Max, thank you for your time.

MAYFIELD: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: I appreciate it. I know you have other briefings to give. As I'm sure you understand, we're going to have some difficulty probably reaching him at this point but we will do the best we can.

S. O'BRIEN: And Miles you know this might be a good time to remind the viewers that as you see Chad's live shot go in and out, in some ways when you consider the conditions, when you consider the winds getting up to the 70 mile an hour range, maybe more to some degree it's a miracle any of these shots are going off. The ones you see where they're going off without a hitch, those are the amazing ones because the technology is not really meant to withstand those kind of conditions. We are going to hope that our luck holds out, check in with Anderson Cooper and John Zarrella. We seen them battling the conditions in Pensacola, Florida. There they are, lets see if we can chat with them. Anderson, how much worse have things gotten since the last time we talked?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Things are -- well, they're pretty bad. It's hard to compare. We're seeing sustained winds in the 50s, 55 miles per hour, seen gusts up into the 60s. It is definitely getting worse and worse as the minutes tick by. We are seeing the wind is really picking up. It's not so much the rain at this point. There is rain and it is flying horizontal but it's really this wind, these gusts which hitting us very hard. You can see I-10; it's really even very difficult for me to even look in the direction you are now seeing. The camera is able to reach there. But there is so much sand flying around. It's very hard to look into this wind.

A portion is shut down. I-10 a portion is shut down. That bridge collapsed. That bridge collapsed before in hurricane Ivan. It is very close to the water. Part of that bridge has been rebuilt. A temporary structure. We will see if it lasts through this part of the hurricane. The worst, of course, is yet to come, but this is a very fast-moving storm, as you know. The eye of this storm, the diameter is relatively small. It is a tight storm. That means a very strong storm inside in those eye walls. Very strong indeed.

We have not seen a lot of debris at this point flying around. We've seen some signs knocked down. This wind is really picking up even in the minute or so that I've been talking, you can feel it picking up significantly, Soledad. It is of great concern. I'm on this bay in Pensacola and the water; if you walk over here it is really coming ashore very hard, some big waves. This is not the Gulf, this is a bay. So you can consider how bad the Gulf must look like.

We're just a couple of miles north of the Gulf. We didn't want to be too close to the coast because it is such a low-lying coast, we thought that whole area would flood so we are actually up relatively high up off the ground, off the water level so we think we're OK here. But this storm it seems pretty unpredictable. We don't know how bad it's going to get. It is very uncomfortable and very unpleasant at this point. A couple of people standing around, some people who just wanted to come out, see what the storm felt like but it's mostly a few police officers and camera crews who are still out here.

S. O'BRIEN: Listen, we're going to take a break and we come back on the other side of the break, I want to ask you a little bit about the debris. You pointed out some things that you're watching. I want to see the status of those things and we'll talk about it more after this sort break. So hang in there for us. OK Anderson, we will see you right after - the other side of this break. We will be back in just a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: You can see the sign there; it said, "don't be a menace Dennis." I guess a little bit of humor there but, of course, Dennis is already a menace. Lets bring you right back out to Anderson Cooper he is in Pensacola, Florida where things are rapidly deteriorating. Anderson I wanted to ask you a question about the debris. Because of course that is one of the areas where people are most concerned. It's the debris, the wind that turns that debris into these little projectile missiles. You were pointing out the top of that Dairy Queen or whatever that is that is near you. Is the wind going in the right direction that is that stuff should come off; it is not going to be flying around and hitting you?

COOPER: That's correct. With the wind as it is now, of course this wind can turn later on. But as the wind as it is now we're hoping when this blows it will blow in that direction, blow away from us. But I just want to show you the kinds of things that have become debris, have become a real problem. This gas pump has already started to rip apart. This blue part of it, this panel has come off, this is the kind of thing as the winds pick up, and it will become airborne. And that could kill somebody flying through the air. It is a very heavy piece of metal. As you can see, those kinds of things you're going to see a lot more ripping off so why is why we're positioned here.

I want to take you to Rick Sanchez who has been traveling in a Hummer on the barrier of the Gulf. He has been traveling from Ft. Walton toward Destin. He is a couple of miles south of where I am right now. I'm in Pensacola along the Escambia Bay. Rick is further south. Rich can you hear me? What are the conditions where you are?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'll tell you something, Anderson, I've covered a lot of these storms and I've never seen something quite like what we saw when we tried to cross over between Destin and Ft. Walton Beach. The Gulf has literally overtaken the highway there and it's all but impossible. We hear talks all the time about storm surges. We really came upon a storm surge there quite literally. I think what people need to understand is that the effect from hurricanes, unlike tornadoes, is that it happens little by little.

We're just at the very cusp, at the beginning of this storm so we start to now see some of the damages that usually occur. As it continues, by the time this is done three or four hours from now we're going to look back and we are going to say oh my goodness take a look at all that damage. How did it all happen? It happens incrementally.

Let's take a look now at the very first parts of the damage that we've come across as we had been crossing on I-98 which -- on Highway 98 which is what we're on right now. This is something we came across a little while ago and it has to do something with something you were talking about. These gas stations, which are basically made of aluminum, which are oftentimes the first to go. Here it is.

It is quarter to 2:00 Eastern Time. We're starting to see the first signs of severe damage. We're off of Highway 98 just off of Destin, Florida in the Panhandle. We're already starting to see usually where it happens first is gas stations like this. You're seeing now that the actual pumps are starting to fall over. Many of the tops that are made of aluminum are coming off. If we -- Michael, move up just a little bit. This one is already starting to teeter and totter itself. It looks like it could go as well. Expect if this is, indeed, a cat 4 as expected, an hour and a half from now when it comes onshore with maximum force winds this aluminum roof like on many other of these gas stations will likely either peel off or fly off altogether. JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I'm Jacqui Jeras in the CNN Weather Center. The eye wall of hurricane Dennis is now making landfall. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning in effect for Escambia, Okaloosa, and Santa Rosa counties. The reason why not because there's a tornado but because they want to treat this hurricane as a tornado. It's one huge tornado causing massive destruction as it makes it's way onshore right now. You can see these bright yellows, oranges and reds now pushing right towards Santa Rosa Island.

It is going to be making landfall between 2:00 and 2:30 Central Time somewhere right along Santa Rosa Island from say Ft. Walton Beach extending on over towards the Gulf Breeze area. Tornado warning has now been issued in effect. This is the time to hunker down. You need to be in a safe place if you have not evacuated. If you live anywhere in these counties, not just on the coastline. Keep in mind this goes inland. You will be seeing these hurricane force winds now pushing in. And they will be strong sustained winds. The latest update should be coming in very soon from the National Hurricane Center. Is that it? Bring it on.

Thank you very much. Here's a 3:00 advisory give me a second to find where our winds are. Maximum sustained winds are now down a little bit to 120-mile-per-hour. That still category 3 hurricane, so 120 miles per hour a little bit of weakening. We'll take any weakening that we can get at this time. But there you can see the eye wall is making landfall at this time. You can see the center of circulation, that's the center of Dennis right now. We don't technically consider it landfall until the center of the storm, till that eye makes its way over shore. But this is the part of the storm that we are concerned about. Once again, Miles, Soledad, let me repeat. Tornado warning in effect, Okaloosa and Escambi, and Santa Rosa counties as the eye wall makes it way on shore.

M. O'BRIEN: Jacqui quick question before you get away here. They say lightning doesn't strike twice. I'm sure the people there in September when they endured Ivan could never have imagined that a hurricane some ten months later would pass over almost in the identical spot.

JERAS: Exactly. Not to mention one that is even worse. But remember last year we had Frances and Jean and those two moved over the same spot too, so it has happened before.

S. O'BRIEN: All right well it looks like as Jacqui tells us the landfall has been made. It looks like Ft. Walton, Florida is the site. We have Drew Griffin there he has a videophone. Let's see if we can get him up, and we can talk about what he is seeing at this moment. Hey Drew, you heard Jacqui's report. It is now a category 3 at 120 miles an hour. What does it look like where you are?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's gotten increasingly bad. We thought we would be on the far eastern edge of this. But as we've seen just in the last hour or two, the news has gotten incrementally worse. Ft. Walton, Beach, I'm standing in back of a radio station that was trying to stay on the air just in last half hour or so, WTKA lost their transmitter.

So people here in Ft. Walton are literally cut off now. You heard Rick Sanchez, he's further east in Destin. I was on that highway just before it was closing. I also was just about an hour ago was at Navarre Beach where we're talking about that eye wall coming across. The conditions there were terrible. Interestingly enough, the University of Florida has placed a tower there to collect data as part of their hurricane center research. So it looks like that is perfectly placed to determine exactly what this hurricane is doing and they'll be able to get some great data.

As of right now, the conditions in Ft. Walton Beach, the winds gusting tremendously strong. I have not been able to see the water in the last 15 or 20 minutes. But the water is coming across the sound now. They're expecting major flooding if, indeed, that wall is coming in this general direction.

S. O'BRIEN: Hey, Drew. A lot of folks in the various areas have been concerned about the debris, some of the debris that has been left from the construction, the repairs from hurricane Ivan. Would those winds where you are and you're outside, are there lots of piles of debris that you're concerned about or is it a different story in Ft. Walton Beach?

GRIFFIN: To tell you the truth, I think like a lot of the reporters that we've been hearing from, I have not seen a lot of debris flying. It may be just because the strongest winds aren't here yet or, Soledad, it may be that this area was so stripped clean by Ivan last year and by tropical storm just last week, that a lot of stuff that would be flying, peelings coming off aluminum siding, winds that -- limbs that are loose may already be gone.

We didn't see a lot of branches on the road or we didn't see a lot of the gas station signs tipped over. Obviously a few but not as bad as we thought. And one of the possible scenarios is that a lot of the junk is gone. And even though they're in piles those piles of debris low to the ground are going to be able to withstand the wind a lot more than a gas station sign 30 feet in the air.

S. O'BRIEN: I hope that's the case Drew because it's looking a little bit rough where you are right now. We got to take a short break.

M. O'BRIEN: We will take a break and leave with you a picture. This is really the moment that we have been talking about. And wondering about it all day long, bracing ourselves for. As you can see right there, that is where the eye wall is just beginning to hit those affected parts of the Gulf Coast of Florida. This is the strongest storm in recorded history to hit that part of Florida, category 3 now, 120 miles an hour. I guess that would put it on par with Ivan probably. Probably a little more stronger than Ivan. Nevertheless, very serious doings. And we are watching it every step of the way. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) M. O'BRIEN: A monster named Dennis is thundering onto the Gulf shore as we speak. It's now category 3, 120 mile an hour winds, a raging swirl of ferocious winds, battering waves, driving rain. One of the most treacherous storms known to have swamped Florida's Panhandle.

S. O'BRIEN: And if you are not one of the thousands who has already fled their home for safer shelter, well you know what that moment has long passed. Experts say in fact the most risky time is after the storm hits so you want to stay put and be prepared to just ride it out.

M. O'BRIEN: We are talking about that storm surge; we are going to be able to show you that very shortly. Because our reporters are doing a whale of a job out there, all along the Gulf Coast trying to bring you the very latest as it happens.

Hello and welcome back to this special edition of CNN LIVE SUNDAY. I'm Miles O'Brien.

S. O'BRIEN: And I'm Soledad O'Brien. Lets get right to Jacqui Jeras she has the latest updates. She just got it in a couple of moments ago. Hey Jacqui.

JERAS: Well it is about this, the center is less than 20 miles from the shoreline, but it is the eye wall that we are especially concerned about. And you can see that is now starting to make its landfall at this time.


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