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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Hurricane Dennis Threatening to Become Category Four by Time it Hits Gulf Coast

Aired July 10, 2005 - 01:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BETTY NGUYEN, ANCHOR, CNN CENTER, ATLANTA: Warnings, curfews and evacuations. There is a lot going on at this hour, as Hurricane Dennis is threatening to become a Category 4 by the time it hits the U.S. Gulf Coast Sunday afternoon.
Good morning, everybody. It's very early. I'm Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center here in Atlanta.

We do have a closer look at this dangerous hurricane in just a minute. But first, let's get a check on other news making headlines right now.

There's been a major evacuation in Britain's second biggest city. Police ordered thousands of people to leave Birmingham's entertainment district last night.

Police say they have found a package that has the characteristics of an explosive device. The bomb squad will examine it. The evacuation came two days after a string of terrorist bombings in London killed more than 50 people.

Meantime, the investigation into those deadly attacks goes on, and it is going slowly. Police have no suspects yet, and heat and dust in the subway tunnels are making it very tough to recover bodies from the three trains that were targeted. It could be weeks before identities are released.

There has been a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear standoff. North Korea has agreed to return to six nation talks on its nuclear weapons program this month.

The news came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Beijing, China. Now, efforts to restart the stalled nuclear talks were at the top of her agenda.

And they are getting an early start. Space shuttle Discovery's seven astronauts have already arrived at Florida's Kennedy space center. They're prepping for their scheduled Wednesday afternoon launch. This is NASA's first shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

As you should know by now, CNN is your hurricane headquarters. The latest now on the deadly and destructive path of Hurricane Dennis. It has already killed at least 32 people in Haiti and Cuba combined.

Dennis is moving north-northwest at around 14 miles an hour, and it's expected to strike the northern Gulf Coast sometime this afternoon.

Meantime, many Gulf Coast residents are already evacuated or on the move as we speak. Authorities have ordered a million people to leave the beaches. The hurricane's outer edges, well they will also spawn tornadoes.

Now, tornado watches are up right now for the Florida Panhandle, southeast Alabama and southern Georgia. Those watches are in effect until 8 a.m. Eastern.

We have some breaking news to tell you about, and let's go now to meteorologist Bonnie Schneider to get the latest on that. What do you know so far, Bonnie? What is this breaking news?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Betty, the storm has just been upgraded to a Category 4. That's right. Hurricane Dennis is now a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds at 135 miles per hour.

Remember, we had a Category 3 just a short while ago with maximum winds at 125. So a 10 mile-per-hour wind increase has brought Dennis up to Category 4 intensity.

A very powerful storm, very close to land and close to making landfall later on this afternoon. We're expecting the landfall to occur somewhere in the Florida Panhandle towards the Alabama border. You can see the bands already working their way in.

This is a powerful storm with hurricane force winds extending outward 40 miles from the storm's center. So, even before the actual hurricane, which is now a Category 4, even before it makes landfall, we're going to see hurricane force conditions along the Florida Panhandle and also towards the Alabama area as the storm gets closer.

But the big question is, when will it strike and where is it headed? So we'll be looking at the track.

But the one thing to note right now is that the Category 4 storm has already occurred and we're expecting major storm surge as a result, possibly as high as 18 feet.

So, landfall is expected 8 p.m. by Sunday, should - the storm should be already have made landfall by then. We're looking at it towards the late afternoon, early evening hours.

And once the storm makes landfall and works its way to the north and west, it still remains a hurricane intensity, which as you can see, since this storm has already increased in strength, is very, very likely.

So we're looking at this to remain as a hurricane status, even as it works its way into central Mississippi in the early hours of Monday. So Dennis is a storm we're going to be talking about well into the work week.

As you can see, it travels pretty far north up into the map already, into southern Illinois and bringing in some rainfall and possibly some flooding.

But the breaking news right now with Dennis is that the storm has been upgraded, is now a Category 4 hurricane. We haven't seen a Category 4 hurricane make landfall in the U.S. since Charley of last year. So this is major news.

We're looking at this storm to be very intense with maximum sustained winds at 135 miles per hour.

Once again, landfall is expected sometime this afternoon into the early evening hours of Sunday in this vicinity right here along the Florida Panhandle - Pensacola, possibly westward towards Gulf Shores, maybe even a little further west of that.

But the main thing to note is that this storm could cause storm surge up to 18 feet and maximum sustained winds right now, 135 miles per hour.

So, Betty, clearly, this is a very strong storm that's determined to gain strength.

NGUYEN: Well, let me ask you this. About this time yesterday, Dennis was downgraded to a Category 1. Now it's a Category 4.

Is it developing faster than you had imagined?

SCHNEIDER: Well, you know, really, I'd say the main reason for that is, when we talked about it becoming a Category 1 yesterday, it was interacting with Cuba. And any time a storm interacts with land, it tends to break apart. It takes 12 to 24 hours for the storm to re- intensify.

But at this time of year already, we still have some very warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, 85 degrees. And remember, that warm water is the fuel to the fire for a hurricane.

So, as the storm works its way across the Gulf of Mexico, even if it's there for a short time, it could give enough energy for it to intensify. And that's what we saw right now.

We were expecting this storm to become a Category 4 for landfall later today. But it looks like Dennis is determined to strengthen, and it's doing that right now.

The latest advisory has Dennis as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds at 135 miles per hour - Betty.

NGUYEN: A very dangerous storm. We're going to stay on top of it. We'll be checking in with you, Bonnie. Thank you.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

NGUYEN: Well, as Bonnie just mentioned, the eye of Dennis is expected to make landfall somewhere along the Gulf Coast a little bit later today.

Right now, people still in the area. They are under a curfew. And our John Zarrella is live in Pensacola with the latest on that.

Good morning, John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT, PENSACOLA, FLORIDA: Hi, Betty. Well, I could tell you that, you know, the news can't get much worse for the people here after having been through Hurricane Ivan last year.

And, you know, now the news that this hurricane is up to a Category 4, although that's been expected for several hours now, that it would make it to a Category 4.

But here in Pensacola, where Hurricane Ivan hit last year, hope against hope that it wouldn't happen, that it wouldn't re-intensify as much as it has. But it's certainly not good news for the people here, who are still trying to dig out from last year.

There is debris all over the area still. And that will all become flying missiles tomorrow as the storm makes landfall. So, really adding insult to injury for the folks here in the Pensacola area.

Now, we talked to the people at emergency management a little while ago, and they have told us that two of the shelters of the 10 that they have open are now full, which is good news, because people are getting into those shelters.

They wanted them there by midnight tonight Central time. There are still people going to the shelters now. And there are still people trying to evacuate the area here at the last minute, although much of the evacuation has been completed.

And it is important that if people are leaving, or if they are planning to go to shelters, that they do it now. By first light tomorrow morning, hurricane force winds could be - will be - very near to the coast line, if not on the coast line.

People spent all day today here preparing, doing what they could, buying plywood, getting batteries, flashlights, supplies. Fuel lines were long at the gas stations that had gas.

And now all of that has to be done. You know, the time is really over for people to be making those last-minute preparations. They should be completed.

And people should be getting a good night's sleep tonight, because it is going to be a very long day tomorrow here, and very likely, no power in this area for many days to come, once this storm moves through - Betty.

NGUYEN: John, looking at the weather behind you, it looks like it's the calm before the storm. So, a lot of people may be waiting till sunrise before they actually head out of the area, or head to those shelters.

But you mentioned, some of the shelters are already full. So is that going to pose a problem? Are these shelters going to be overcrowded and they're going to have to turn people away?

ZARRELLA: No. They've got space for 8,500 people here, and they still have less than 2,500 in the shelters. So, there's plenty of shelter space available. Two of them happened to be filled up. That won't be an issue.

But you're right. I mean, one of the things that happened when it came off of Cuba, the storm lost its intensity. And we talked to one gentleman earlier who had planned to evacuate, was going to Georgia, had hotel rooms in Georgia. Saw that when the storm came off of Cuba it was down to a Category 1. Changed his mind. Said, ah, forget it - canceled the hotel reservations.

Now he regrets that. He and his family are stuck here, and they're going to have to ride it out.

Hopefully, that's one of the rare exceptions to what's happened here, and that most people have gone ahead and followed through with evacuation plans, because this is a monster on our doorstep - Betty.

NGUYEN: Category 4 as we speak. John, thank you. We'll be checking in with you throughout the morning.

Governor Jeb Bush has already declared a state of emergency in Florida, and that means the state's emergency operation center is up and running.

Public information officer Krista Moody joins us from the emergency operations center in Tallahassee, to talk a little bit more about those preparations.

Let me ask you first thing, it's a Category 4 now. Does that change your preparations in any way?

KRISTA MOODY, FLORIDA PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER, EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER, TALLAHASSEE: Certainly not.

We have emergency managers throughout the state of Florida that are fully prepared for response efforts.

Having had the storms last year, we have FEMA already dispersed throughout the state and prepositioned for response efforts.

NGUYEN: How many crews are available and at the ready at this point, would you say?

MOODY: You know, I really couldn't say. I do know that we are fully prepared for the response and recovery efforts. Right now our first priority is to go out there and save lives.

NGUYEN: And what are you urging the public to do at this point? Obviously, make sure that they evacuate if they are ordered to do so, and head to the shelters.

Any other advice to folks as they're watching right now, and still deciding, I don't know if I want to stick it out or not? MOODY: Absolutely. We'd like to encourage all folks to follow the guidance and information that they're receiving from their local emergency management officials.

NGUYEN: And so, for those who do decide - and we always get a few of them that say, you know what? I'm going to wait it out. I'm going to ride out this storm.

Is there crews, or are there crews available to them? Is help available to them? Or are they pretty much on their own?

MOODY: Oh, they're certainly not on their own. We do have first responders and local emergency officials ready to be deployed and to go out and help those folks.

NGUYEN: So, as you wait, along with the rest of us, and watch and prepare for this Category 4, what's your biggest concern right now?

MOODY: Our biggest concern is that folks do know where the shelters are, and they have enough food and other, I guess, medical resources available to them for the next 72 hours.

NGUYEN: And these shelters are all up and running at this point?

MOODY: Yes, they are.

NGUYEN: How many do you have?

MOODY: I don't have it right in front of me, but I do know that that information can be found on FloridaDisaster.org.

NGUYEN: OK. And that's for people wanting some more information, FloridaDisaster.org.

MOODY: Yes. And we also have a line activated for the public that may have any concerns or questions relating to the storm. And that's the Florida Emergency Information Line.

And that number is 1-800-342-3557.

NGUYEN: All right, 1-800-342-3557 for anyone wanting some information about the emergency situation there.

Well, we appreciate it, Krista Moody, with the emergency operations center in Tallahassee. Best of luck to you. Take care. We'll be checking in as well.

MOODY: Thanks, Betty.

NGUYEN: Well, if you're in the path of the storm, you are seeing something others want to. Here's your chance to share.

Send us your pictures. Now, don't go getting yourself in any kind of danger, but send us the pictures of Hurricane Dennis that you are able to capture, whether it's on your phone or your digital camera.

Send them to CNN.com/hurricane. We want to share your point of view, as a citizen journalist, with the world.

First, though, let's take a look back at our coverage of another storm just 10 months ago that devastated the Gulf Coast line.

Hurricane Ivan hit on September 16, 2004.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The wind is gusting stronger and stronger. For the last several hours we've had sort of lulls between these gusts. We're in a gust right now.

We'll get a lull in a little bit as the outer bands of the storm sort of wash over downtown Mobile, Alabama.

But what's interesting, as this storm approaches - and it is approaching fast, about 12 to 13 miles an hour - as this storm approaches, the lulls in between those gusts get shorter and shorter.

And after a while, we anticipate in a few hours, it is just going to be - every - all the wind is just going to feel like gust after gust.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: Welcome back. Our big story this hour, Hurricane Dennis is now a Category 4, making it stronger than Ivan, which hit the same area of the Gulf Coast just 10 months ago.

CNN meteorologist Bonnie Schneider has our 15 minute update of Dennis' track and wind speed, and she joins us now.

Hi, Bonnie.

SCHNEIDER: Hi, Betty. That's right. And Category 4 storm just moments ago. A reconnaissance aircraft reported wind gusts as high as - sorry, maximum sustained winds - at 135 miles per hour, classifying Dennis now as a Category 4 storm.

And what's interesting to note in their report is, they say that some strengthening is possible before landfall. So, really incredible news.

This storm is already strengthening a little bit earlier than anticipated.

You can see on our satellite perspective, the eye of the hurricane well defined right now. A powerful Category 4 so close to land, about 235 miles south of Panama City, Florida at present.

That's just the center of circulation. Remember, we have tropical storm force winds that extend outward of 230 miles. So, already we're seeing those strong winds along the Florida Panhandle - hurricane force winds. That means winds that are 74 miles per hour or greater are outward 40 miles from the storm center.

So, I think, even by the early afternoon to mid-afternoon hours, we'll start to see those winds increase and the weather certainly deteriorate on the Florida Panhandle area.

Now, talking about this storm and the track and where it's headed, maximum sustained winds, as I mentioned, for a Category 4. Right now we're at 135, so barely a Category 4, but it could strengthen.

So, what's to keep in mind for a Category 4 storm is that storm surge will be a major concern for Dennis. As the storm works its way across the Gulf of Mexico, it's coming in contact with a lot of warm water, shallow water as well. We may see storm surge as high as 18 feet.

Widespread structural damage - that's a key indicator of a Category 4. And that means mobile homes. We could see some roofs blown off. It's all possible with a storm as powerful as this one.

Large trees can be blown down, and also flooding six miles inland. Massive evacuations certainly required in certain areas where you're seeing such storm surge and flooding.

But what's interesting to note about Dennis is, as it comes in as a Category 4 sometime in the afternoon today into the - or late afternoon hours, possibly - the main thing to note is that this storm surge and this flooding will continue further inland.

This storm, instead of immediately becoming downgraded to a tropical storm, Dennis, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, remains a hurricane, even into Monday morning.

So those of you in Memphis, Tennessee, for your Monday morning commute you may have some problems with some flooding, as this storm will continue to be quite strong. It doesn't turn into a regular area of low pressure, downgraded below a tropical storm until we start talking about Monday evening.

So, Dennis is going to be a big weather maker for the next 24 to 48 hours, at least.

Right now, we're looking at the maximum sustained with this Category 4 storm at 135 miles per hour. And as you can see, when it makes landfall we're expecting some strengthening, possibly up to 140 mile-per-hour winds.

So, right now the storm is very powerful, and we're going to see the weather conditions certainly deteriorate along the Florida Panhandle.

Now, the big question is, where will Dennis strike? And when you're talking about a storm of this magnitude, it does matter where exactly it hits, because the northeast quadrant of the storm really can bring about the worst, worst weather, and certainly, where the eye passes and the inner storm of the eye wall, where we see the strongest winds.

Now, right now the cone of uncertainty certainly stretches across the Alabama area all the way into the Florida Panhandle. But it looks like right now, the storm circulation is headed to the west of Pensacola, but we're going to be watching this.

We're seeing with Dennis really hour by hour. Earlier this morning it was a Category 1 storm, now Category 4 - Betty.

NGUYEN: Hard to believe it has moved so quickly, and now so powerful.

I guess the next question is, does this mean it still has time to become a Category 5? And if that is the case, let's talk about the difference between a Category 5 and a Category 4.

SCHNEIDER: Sure, Betty.

The Category 5 storms, as you can imagine, are not too common. The maximum sustained winds with a storm like that can get you 150 miles per hour or greater.

Right now the National Hurricane Center is reporting that this storm will most likely be coming on shore as a Category 4 at 140 miles per hour.

Remember, the wind range for Category 4 is up to 155. So, it is unlikely that it will strengthen that much in a short amount of time.

The movement is to the northwest at about 14 miles per hour. So we could see some strengthening. But at this point, it looks like we'll see this storm come on shore slightly stronger than it is right now at a Category 4 level with maximum winds at 140 miles per hour - Betty.

NGUYEN: We'll keep watch. Bonnie Schneider, thank you so much. We'll be checking in with you.

So, is Hurricane Dennis affecting where you live? Send us your photos and video to CNN.com/hurricane. But a word of caution. Do not risk anything. Your safety, of course, is most important to us.

And speaking of those pictures, while we're asking for them to come in, here's a few that we've already gotten. This one from Susan in Punta Gorda, Florida. A picture of the rain and wind that's already hit the area. You can see some of the debris in the street there in front of that house.

There's more pictures to put up for you. Here's another one from Joni in Florida. And what is that? I guess that's sand that's covered the beach with all the wind that's come through the area so far. And, of course, you know, Category 4 - we can only begin to imagine what kind of debris is going to be washed up, what kind of flooding we're going to see. But as we wait and we watch, here's another picture from Joni.

And people have started boarding up all across the Gulf shores, preparing for Dennis. We always get these interesting signs of people saying all kinds of things to the storm as it heads in. And this one says, "Up yours, Dennis". And I imagine we're going to see plenty more of signs similar to that.

But send us your pictures if you have some. Again, don't risk any danger getting these. We don't want anything like that to happen. But if you have any really interesting pictures from what you're seeing there along the states where Dennis coming ashore, please send them in to CNN.

All right. We want to show you some other statistics as well, and some more pictures. And we'll be doing this throughout the morning.

But we do have to tell you, it is also very difficult to assess the emotional toll a hurricane can take.

Gary Tuchman shows us why, and that is coming up on this special coverage of Hurricane Dennis. We have live coverage all weekend on CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: For so many people, Hurricane Dennis is bringing back memories of 2004 that are all too fresh. The devastation from last year's hurricane season still scars the landscape of coastal Florida.

And as CNN's Gary Tuchman reports, people are still catching their breath.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The wrath of Hurricane Frances. The fury of Hurricane Jeanne. Two powerful storms that, against all odds, hit land at the exact same place on Florida's east coast.

CAROL TAYLOR, HURRICANE SURVIVOR, VERO BEACH, FLORIDA: The roof came off like a can of sardines with a key rolled off. And we paid somebody to come and screw it back down the day before Jeanne hit, creating those holes.

TUCHMAN: And when Jeanne hit, Carol Taylor's home - the place where she and her husband Don planned to spend the rest of their lives, the destruction was complete. The house was totaled.

DON TAYLOR, HURRICANE SURVIVOR, VERO BEACH, FLORIDA: This was the absolute culmination of our life. It was everything.

CAROL TAYLOR: And we don't have enough insurance monies coming to replace the loss.

DON TAYLOR: Nope, this is no good.

TUCHMAN: The Taylors live in Vero Beach, Florida, 10 miles from the ocean in a development called Lakewood Village, where almost every one of the 320 homes suffered some damage, and about 40 of the homes were total losses.

DON TAYLOR: Walk around here, you hear people saying, well, we don't want to forget this. We're going to have a tee-shirt made up, you know, the hurricane of 2004.

Who in their right mind would want to remember something like this?

CAROL TAYLOR: No. We just want to forget it.

DON TAYLOR: Try to move on to something that we don't even know what it's going to be yet.

TUCHMAN: Weeks after the hurricanes, the Taylors had not yet seen a dime of insurance money.

The people who live here in Lakewood Village come from all over the United States and Canada. They move here for a fresh start. They move here to retire.

They move here to pursue the Florida dream, which this summer in this community turned into a real-life nightmare.

This is what many of the living room ceilings look like in Lakewood Village.

JANET HUNTLEY, HURRICANE SURVIVOR, VERO BEACH, FLORIDA: That was the floor.

TUCHMAN: Janet Huntley's home is another one of the uninhabitable ones.

HUNTLEY: Haven't seen an insurance adjuster.

TUCHMAN: She is staying in an RV with her husband Al, with the hope that eventual insurance money covers the cost of a new home in Lakewood Village.

HUNTLEY: I can cry at the drop of a hat. And I never - I used to be able to control my emotions. When I worked, I was an executive secretary. And, you know, you just didn't show. You had nerves of steel. Well, now, they're like jelly.

And if somebody says something to me that just hits me the wrong way, I cry. And I don't cry, I sob.

TUCHMAN: And you come up to the back of your house, and you see a portion of the house right there that doesn't look like it's part of your house. BOB EBENLEY (ph), HURRICANE SURVIVOR, VERO BEACH, FLORIDA: No it isn't.

TUCHMAN: What is that right over there?

EBENLEY (ph): That's the roof to someone else's house.

TUCHMAN: Bob Ebenley's house was bought by his father two decades ago.

EBENLEY (ph): I'm just glad he's not alive today to see it. I just think he'd be devastated. I mean, he took such pride in this house and took such good care of it. And in one night it's completely destroyed.

TUCHMAN: Nancy Davis, like virtually everybody here, evacuated before both storms. Hurricane Frances caused significant damage to her modest home. Hurricane Jeanne finished it off.

NANCY DAVIS, HURRICANE SURVIVOR, VERO BEACH, FLORIDA: And it took a while to sink in that I had no home left.

TUCHMAN: Carol and Don Taylor are temporarily living in an RV while they plan their move back to Massachusetts, where they will live with family members, their Florida dream about to conclude.

You've got to be very grateful that you have each other.

DON TAYLOR: Oh, yes. Yes.

CAROL TAYLOR: Yes.

DON TAYLOR: That's the only thing that really ...

TUCHMAN: For the Taylors, and for so many others, this hurricane season changed everything.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Vero Beach, Florida.

(END VIDEO)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: Well, good morning from the CNN headquarters in Atlanta, your hurricane headquarters. I'm Betty Nguyen.

We are watching Hurricane Dennis as it approaches the Gulf Coast of the United States.

Now, in the last 30 minutes, it has reached Category 4 strength, making it a major hurricane. We'll bring you the latest update in just a moment. But first, here are some of the other headlines now in the news.

Forensic experts in London are set to begin the gruesome task of identifying the victims of Thursday's bombings. Forty-nine bodies have been recovered, but there are still numerous victims missing from one of the trains in a subway tunnel. Officials say it could be weeks before identities are released.

Now, the remains of some 600 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre arrived near Srebrenica Saturday. They'll be buried during a memorial on Monday marking the 10th anniversary of Europe's worst massacre since World War II.

Bosnian Serbs killed nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys from 1992 to 1995.

Space shuttle Discovery's seven astronauts are ready to go. They arrived at the Kennedy space center in Florida Saturday, as NASA prepared to start the countdown for Wednesday's liftoff. It will be the first shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

CNN is your hurricane headquarters, and we have updates on the storm every 15 minutes. Hurricane Dennis is now a Category 4 storm, making it very dangerous.

So, let's check in with CNN meteorologist Bonnie Schneider who is tracking this storm.

Category 4. I guess the fear now is how much more power will it pack before it hits land.

SCHNEIDER: Well, Betty, right now the maximum sustained winds with Dennis are at 135 miles per hour. A reconnaissance aircraft flew into the storm, and that's their latest report.

Not only that, though. They say the storm is likely to strengthen a bit before it makes landfall.

Right now we're expecting those winds to increase to 140 miles per hour. But really, with these storms, you have to keep such a close watch on it, because these things do develop quickly.

Earlier, we didn't think the Category 4 turnover would happen until a few hours from now. But as the storm works its way over these warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico at a moderately slow speed to the northwest at 14 miles per hour, it certainly has the time and has all the ingredients it needs to develop. And that's what we saw over the past hour or so.

So, to get a closer look at this Category 4 system, you're probably wondering, what does a Category 4 mean? Well, it means this is a serious, a major hurricane.

Take a look at the wind speeds for a Category 4. They can go so high as 155 miles per hour. No, not to say we're expecting that with Dennis. Right now, maximum winds with Dennis are at 135 miles per hour. Of course, we could see gusts higher than that in some areas.

Storm surge, a major concern, 13 to 18 feet and certainly widespread structural damage is expected when you have such a powerful storm coming on shore. But storm surge is going to be a big concern for the Gulf Coast, from the Florida Panhandle all the way out towards, I'd say, the most eastern extremes of Louisiana, because we're going to see a lot of flooding with this storm. And even as it works its way further inland, we're expecting the storm surge to continue.

Here's the definition of storm surge for you. It's an abnormal rise in sea level accompanying a hurricane or another intense storm.

Observed storm tide minus the astronomical tide equals storm surge.

OK, that's the technical term. But the main thing to note is that this means a lot of water coming in in a short amount of time.

And when you have a hurricane moving through, you'll definitely see this occur.

Imagine if you had a big pot of water and you put a spoon in the center of it and started stirring, all the water would build up on the side. That's what happens when a hurricane gets close to making landfall, even before the storm makes landfall, which we're expecting for Dennis later this afternoon into the early evening hours.

You'll still see those waters increase, the winds increase and the weather just generally to deteriorate as the storm approaches.

Remember, with Dennis right now, we have tropical storm force winds - winds that are 39 miles per hour or greater extending out of the storm, outwards 230 miles. So it's a major storm, a powerful one, and now, Betty, a Category 4.

NGUYEN: All right. We're going to keep watching this. We'll be checking with you. Thank you, Bonnie.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

NGUYEN: Fort Walton Beach is a low-lying coastal area in Florida's Panhandle. Now, parts of the area have been under a mandatory evacuation order since Saturday morning Three shelters are open in the county.

And joining me now on the situation there is Fort Walton Beach mayor, Mike Anderson. We appreciate you joining us.

And I guess this - at this time, I want to ask you what the weather is like right now.

MIKE ANDERSON, MAYOR, FORT WALTON BEACH, FLORIDA: I was just outside a few minutes ago, and it's starting to rain and the wind is picking up a little bit. But it's a light rain right now.

NGUYEN: Well, that's probably as calm as it's going to get, because, as you heard Bonnie Schneider tell us, it's going to be a Category 4. That's what it's expected to be when it hits.

How are you preparing for this?

ANDERSON: Well, we stood up our emergency operation center at one o'clock today, just to see - make sure everybody was ready for it. And then we actually activated it at 8 p.m. this evening. And that's when our police and fire went on their 12 hour - 12 on, 12 off shifts.

We've got our shelters going at elementary schools, and we have sort of set up one of the high schools, is going to be a - being a place of refuge.

And we're just going to - getting ready to go out. We went around and talked to everybody - door to door - when the evacuation areas.

And there are still a few diehards that weren't going to evacuate. So we actually took their names, so after the all-clear comes, we can go back and make sure everything is all right with them.

So, we're as ready as we can be, and just waiting for it to get here.

NGUYEN: How much does that amaze you, that people, despite what you've been through - because the last year, Ivan, a Category 3, hit the area, caused 56 deaths in the U.S.

But yet, we're seeing Dennis now - a Category 4 and what it's expected to be when it hits - people are still deciding to wait it out. Does that just continue to boggle your mind?

ANDERSON: Yes, it does. And it really frustrates our police who don't understand why. But we say, OK. If you're going to stay, you know, give us your next of kin so we will know. And that doesn't even intimidate them.

NGUYEN: Are these shelters - you've got three that are open in the county. Are they full?

ANDERSON: No. Well, the one, the closest one, which is like six or seven miles from the coast, is an elementary school. It has a building that can take up to 440. And at about 10 o'clock, there were only like 250 people in it.

We have a special needs shelter further up the road that only had like 25 or 30 people in it. So, and then we have a very big shelter, which is like 20 miles north of us, that just had a handful of people in it.

So, again, it just amazes us.

NGUYEN: Well, why do you think it's a low turnout? Do you think a lot of people are just evacuating completely out of the area?

ANDERSON: I believe so. I think that's what it is.

And some of the people just didn't have the means. And then we had a gas shortage problem here that the governor was trying to help us out with.

So, that frustrated a lot of people, and so they were still - there was only like two or three gas stations open at six o'clock tonight that had any gas.

NGUYEN: Mayor, I can hear the frustration in your voice. Here's the last thing I'm going to ask you.

Coming off of Ivan, which caused so much damage last year - a Category 3, 56 deaths in the U.S. - what kind of an economic and, more importantly, emotional toll is this taking on you and the people there at Fort Walton Beach?

ANDERSON: Well, not so much me emotionally, because we were about 25, 30 miles east of where Ivan hit. And we're about, you know, 50 miles east of Pensacola.

So, it's - a lot of the people get frustrated, but we've been here for 25 years and have chosen to ride it out and just take our licks, because we just don't want to leave our home behind.

But the people that are here, like at the gas lines, they were very patient. They rode - they stayed in line for 30 minutes, and then all of a sudden there's no gas. That frustrated them, but they're all helping each other out.

I think it's - the emotional toll, I really can't say what it's like, because I haven't talked to them that much. I just know that we haven't had any problems, so to speak, with people getting frustrated over the situation.

NGUYEN: Well, we wish you the best of luck. Take care. And, of course, we will be watching, just like everybody else.

Mayor Mike Anderson of Fort Walton Beach.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Betty.

NGUYEN: We have updates on the hurricane's location every 15 minutes. You don't want to go away. The latest forecast for Hurricane Dennis when we return.

Plus, we will share some pictures from you, our citizen journalists, witnessing the effects of this hurricane.

Live coverage all weekend on CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: And we are going to be following Hurricane Dennis all day long when it hits, after it hits. You want to stay with CNN for the latest information.

We also want to know something from you. How is Hurricane Dennis affecting your area? Send us your photos and video to CNN.com/hurricane. But we do want to give you a word of caution. Do not do anything risky to shoot those shots. Your safety, of course, is most important.

But we do want to show you some pictures that we've already received into CNN. Here is one from our citizen journalist, Bob from Florida, where you can see things look A-OK. But as you look at the top of this picture, you can see the skies are getting gray. The storm is heading into the area.

Also got another picture to show you. Now, this one is obviously from some kind of wind or storm damage that has already hit Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is from Chris. You can see the tree has been knocked over, parts of it hitting a couple of cars there.

And unfortunately, this is going to be a little bit of what we're going to see throughout this morning and into the day, as Dennis comes ashore.

Category 4 is what we're hearing so far. We're going to learn a little bit more about where Dennis is and exactly when Dennis is expected to come ashore. And for that we turn it over to CNN meteorologist Bonnie Schneider.

Bonnie, where is Dennis right now?

SCHNEIDER: Right now, Dennis is about 235 miles south of Panama City, about 310 miles to the southeast of Biloxi right now. So, that's where the storm is.

It's pretty evident. Our satellite perspective as well. You can see a very well defined eye. Remember, this storm has just recently been upgraded to a Category 4 with maximum sustained winds at 135 miles per hour.

The reconnaissance aircraft that flew into Dennis says that we may see more strengthening before landfall is expected, sometime later this afternoon or into the early evening hours. But we're likely to see it in the late afternoon, especially as it gets closer.

Remember, a Category 4 - a very serious storm. It's really unusual. We tend to see these storms only about once every six years on average. Winds can get as high as 155 miles per hour. Storm surge could get as high as 18 feet, especially at the time of high tide.

Widespread structural damage is expected with a Category 4. Very large trees blown down and flooding up to six mile inland. And certainly, massive evacuations required for areas that are going to be prone to the flooding.

And the flooding may actually occur even further inland than six miles. And the reason is, this is such a large storm, it's such a powerful storm, that even when it interacts with land, unlike what happened earlier this morning when it interacted with land in Cuba and late last night, it kind of broke apart, got downgraded from a two to a one. This is different. Now at a Category 4 strength, this storm is likely to stay pretty intense, even after it makes landfall. And what's interesting to note, as you can see, it still remains a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds at 75 miles per hour, even early in the morning on Monday.

So we're talking well after it makes landfall. This is still going to be a serious storm that will not only cause flooding, but we may see isolated tornadoes as the storm comes on shore, with the winds shifting and the atmosphere is right for the tornadoes to break out, as well.

So, flooding will be a concern. Strong thunderstorms, lightning - a serious situation indeed. And even as we stretch on out into Tuesday, we're likely to see that flooding continue to the north as well. So, a powerful Category 4 storm indeed.

Just to let you know quickly, though, we do have a tornado watch out now for much of the Panhandle of Florida, even into southern sections of Georgia and Alabama right now, because we're starting to see those strong thunderstorms work their way in.

So, Betty, a really serious situation now with a Category 4 storm making landfall this afternoon or early evening tonight.

NGUYEN: You know, Bonnie, we talk a lot about when Dennis is going to make landfall. But as you can see from that radar right there, you're already seeing the effects of Dennis in Florida - lots of rain. You said tornadoes.

What are people experiencing right now in those areas that we're watching?

SCHNEIDER: Well, tropical storm force winds extend outward of 230 miles. So I mentioned that the storm's center of circulation is 235 miles south of Panama City.

So when you're talking about that, you can see, just due - by the math alone, that already we're getting those wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour. And already, strong thunderstorms right here along the Florida Panhandle.

It's not even raining right now in New Orleans, but further to the east, we're seeing that rain come down in Mobile.

So it's really - it's interesting to see the storm sort of pop up and develop, and they could potentially get even stronger than that.

NGUYEN: All right. CNN's Bonnie Schneider, we'll be talking with you a lot this morning. You definitely want to stay tuned to CNN, because we are going to be here all day long. As soon as Dennis hits, after it hits, we're going to keep you up to date with the very latest information as it becomes available to us.

Also, Key West weathered the storm, but that doesn't mean the island is out of the woods just yet. And those who evacuated? Well, they can't return home.

We'll get a look at the damage in just three minutes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: You know, there's really no way to gauge the level of alarm over Hurricane Dennis or the level of damage it may cause. In areas all along the Gulf Coast, residents are boarding up and packing up, hopefully headed for safer ground.

Jay Gray of CNN affiliate WPMI brings us this report from Gulf Shores, Alabama.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

JAY GRAY, WPMI TV, GULF SHORES, ALABAMA: Dennis delivered only a glancing blow to Key West, but still dumped several inches of rain on the island.

The water climbed all the way to the doorknob at this apartment, where stunned residents could only stare and hope the rain would soon stop.

In Fort Walton Beach, lightning from the storm sparked this boat fire, as Dennis churned in the warm Gulf waters, growing to a major hurricane and taking aim at a weary Gulf Coast.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're just worn out.

GRAY: This has become an all-too-familiar drill. Three of the four main storms this year have followed the same path into the Gulf Coast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would say I'm as prepared as I'm going to be. I will leave the rest up to faith and the good lord.

GRAY: But for so many here, there is so little left to pack. Months ago, Ivan was the last in a string of storms that took it all away. And now Dennis threatens to steal their spirit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But if we had to go through it a third time, I think we'd go inland. It's just too traumatic for the children.

GRAY: There is little question this storm will leave a path of destruction in its wake. But it's the emotional scars that may cut the deepest.

(END VIDEO)

NGUYEN: And again, that was Jay Gray of CNN affiliate WPMI.

Power lost, streets flooded and debris everywhere. That is the scene in the Florida Keys in the wake of Hurricane Dennis. We will give you a glimpse of the waterlogged islands when we come back.

You want to stay with CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: Welcome back to CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

Residents of the lower Florida Keys are being allowed back home today after fleeing Hurricane Dennis. The Keys were spared a direct hit from Dennis, but that doesn't mean they got off easy.

Jeff Weinsier, from CNN's Miami affiliate WPLG, filed this report.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

JEFF WEINSIER, WPLG TV, MIAMI: A different perspective. We're on the second floor now of the Best Western, and I want to show you South Roosevelt Boulevard. You cannot tell where the Atlantic Ocean is. You cannot tell where the road is.

And believe it or not, we see people every now and then driving by.

The winds continue to pound the area, just north of the Key West airport. As far as damage goes, that Best Western sign is probably the worst damage that we have seen at this hotel.

A little further down, you can see the storm surge that is coming over. It is flowing into a wooded area between the two hotels here. Where it's going, we have no idea. But it has been flowing like this since about 8:30 last night.

Throughout the area there are downed trees, like that small palm over there.

But there's even a more hazardous situation on U.S. 1, where we saw a tree across the entire road.

Some more damage, not really severe, at the Best Western. Exit signs that have snapped off the roof.

That tiki hut was once standing straight up, but when you have winds 40, 50, 60, 70 miles an hour pounding you for 10 to 12 hours, you start to lean.

We are now at the back side of the Best Western, and all the storm surge that you saw in the parking lot has created a brand new river.

All the storm surge is actually flowing into a lake behind the Best Western. But that lake is starting to fill up, and you can see it is now starting to flood.

We haven't had power here at the Best Western since about 11 o'clock last night, but the lines are all still up.

We've seen some homes where shingles have flown off and the roofs have been damaged. But here at the Best Western, they're taking a direct hit. And the metal roof is standing up just fine.

A huge concern here - deadly missiles, as in heavy coconuts flying off palm trees.

How much water have we had here in the parking lot? Well, here's a good indication. This is all seaweed that has flown out of the Atlantic.

We discovered even the wildlife wants to get out of this weather. Right there, last night a snake trying to get into our motel room.

That's the very latest in Key West. I'm Jeff Weinsier. Back to you.

(END VIDEO)

NGUYEN: Now, that's something you don't want to see when you're headed back to your room.

That was Jeff Weinsier from our Miami affiliate, WPLG.

The next hour of our hurricane coverage begins right now. Don't forget, we're here all morning long, all day long. You want to stay with CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

A big change within the last hour. Deadly Dennis is now a Category 4 storm. Plus, packing up and moving out. Who's leaving and who's weathering this storm.

Good morning, everybody. I'm Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center in Atlanta, your hurricane headquarters.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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