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Hurricane Dennis Heads Towards Gulf Coast

Aired July 10, 2005 - 05:00   ET


BETTY NGUYEN, CBS ANCHOR: Gulf Coast residents nervously eye Hurricane Dennis, a massive Category 4 storm that is still gaining strength. Plus, packing up and moving out - who is leaving and who is weathering the storm.
Good morning, everybody, I'm Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center in Atlanta, your Hurricane Headquarters.

I'm going to give you the latest now: Dennis strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane around 1:00 a.m. Eastern. It is now packing top winds of 145 miles-an-hour and is expected to slam into the northern Gulf Coast this afternoon. The hurricane has already killed 32 people in Haiti and Cuba, combined. In the meantime, many Gulf Coast residents are heading for safety. Authorities have ordered a million people to leave the beaches.

There are also fears that the hurricane's outer edges will spawn tornadoes. Tornado watches are up right now for the Florida Panhandle, southeast Alabama, and southern Georgia. They are in effect until 8:00 a.m. Eastern.

And a reminder, you definitely want to stay tuned to CNN all day for the latest on Hurricane Dennis.

Let's go straight to meteorologist Bonnie Schneider, in the CNN Hurricane Headquarters, for the latest on Dennis, which is very powerful, at this point.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely, and we have some new information for you. The movement has picked up just a little bit. It is now moving north, northwest near 15 miles per hour; earlier, it was 14. And the center of circulation is about 245 miles southeast of Biloxi or 170 miles south of Panama City -- so still a powerful storm.

But another note is that storm surge flooding 14 to 19-feet above normal -- so this is going to be a serious problem with flooding and storm surge. Last year, we had storm surge with Hurricane Ivan. Well, it was a Category 3. So look what happens. Unfortunately, when you get the storm surge, you can really see some major problems. This area here is a building that was affected by Hurricane Ivan. The before picture -- notice the arrows here - it is built on a stand like many locations are along the coast. And then the storm surge came in; completely devastated it. This is last year, Hurricane Ivan.

A worse storm is coming in here, so we can just imagine what is going to happen to property along the beaches there, as we're expecting landfall this afternoon, somewhere in vicinity of Mobile Bay. It looks like we are beginning to pinpoint this a little bit better as we get closer and closer to the time, and we keep getting our most recent advisories for you posted.

Still a powerful storm - Category 4 - maximum sustained winds are 145 miles per hour. You can already see the cloud tops as they get closer to the Panhandle of Florida, right now where it is less than 200 miles away from making landfall. Somewhere in this vicinity here, near Mobile Bay - we can see near Gulf Shores, near Pensacola. They are all pretty close together, within a 50-mile range. So just a little jog to the east or west could make the difference.

The worst part of the storm, the worst weather, is always in that northeast quadrant, where we have that turn, that circulation, and we are going to see the most storm surge, as well, along where that section of the storm hits; but the worst and the strongest winds right along the eye wall. Of course, we will be seeing that, and those winds are up to 145 miles per hour. Tropical gusts could be even higher than that.

The tracking - now, this is our updated track for you - brings the storm in later this afternoon. It says here about 2:00 p.m., but as we get closer, we will have a better idea of what time. I would say, this afternoon is really when we are going to see landfall as a Category 4.

And here is another fact that just came out of our latest advisory: The winds are still 145 miles per hour when it makes landfall. We saw some fluctuation with this earlier this morning from our 2:00 a.m. advisory, but now it looks like it is going to come in right where it is now -- a major, major hurricane that will cause major problems with power outages and structural damage and storm surge up to 19 feet. That is a lot of storm surge. We are likely to see some strong waves and wind, as well. Certainly, the possibility exists for tornadoes to break out in this watch box here. As the storm gets closer, we are going to see a lot of friction happening, a lot of wind shifting as the storm gets closer to land, so tornadoes are likely. This is a major, major, major hurricane, one we have not seen in quite some time, certainly. Category 4 expected to make landfall later today -- Betty.

NGUYEN: Hey, Bonnie, when you talk about storm surge, you are saying, you're expecting somewhere around 19 feet. Just to give you an indication of the kind of damage we could be expecting, Mobile, Alabama, is only 26-feet above sea level; Pensacola, 32 feet. So how does that factor into all of this?

SCHNEIDER: It definitely factors in because, really, the Gulf Coast is one of the most vulnerable locations for storm surge, because you have the shallow water, you have the low lying areas. And we are talking about storm surge, you know, more so than normal at the time of high tide. Obviously, high tide will vary from place to place and from pinpointing where the storm comes in. But this is an area, a part of the country that is particularly vulnerable to flooding. Folks in New Orleans know that; that they have flooding in low lying areas -- really anywhere along the Gulf Coast because of the way the water is, the shallowness of the water, and the intensity and size, the magnitude of this hurricane. And not to mention, Betty, I just also want to let everyone know that if you live further inland, even 100 miles away from the shoreline, you may see some flooding, as well, because this is such a powerful storm.

NGUYEN: Even 100 miles away -- all right, Bonnie, thank you. We will be checking in with you in about 15 minutes.

As we just heard, the Alabama coast is right in the danger zone. Many people have heeded evacuation orders. The state tourism department says, 90 percent of hotels are booked between the Gulf shores and Birmingham. Now others, well, they are taking their chances and staying put, hoping for the best.

CNN's Dan Lothian reports from Mobile.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Boarding up and appealing to a higher power, residents in Mobile, Alabama, brace for Hurricane Dennis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We think it is very important; we would like to put that message out to everybody. You know, you need to pray. That is the only thing that is the only thing that is going to get us through this thing, and at least calm our nerves and just keep things straight.

LOTHIAN: This restaurant's trademark shark has been removed from its rooftop perch. The employees are pitching in, placing tables, chairs, and other supplies from the first floor into large containers and sending them to storage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is hard to believe - it's so pretty - there is going to be such a bad storm coming. Hopefully, we will have a business to come back to.

LOTHIAN: Anything that can blow away has been removed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you worry about some of the inventory that is left; you know, we will lose the coolers. Probably, it's really the safety of the employees.

LOTHIAN: Owners say they have been hit by other hurricanes. Last year, Ivan caused extensive damage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. They are just getting too big, and closer and closer - a hard time, you know.

LOTHIAN: But the threat of more storms and more damage does not appear to dampen the desire to keep this business right where it is, on the water's edge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, it's the price you pay for living in paradise. South Alabama is absolutely beautiful. You know, we are thankful to be here. LOTHIAN (on camera): A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for Mobile and surrounding areas, and more than 70 shelters are now open. Emergency officials are now considering imposing a curfew from tomorrow morning until tomorrow evening.

Dan Lothian, CNN, Mobile, Alabama.


NGUYEN: And some smaller Alabama towns already have overnight curfews in place.

Well, people along the Gulf Coast will soon be waking up to face the furry of Hurricane Dennis. Low lying areas in Mississippi are evacuated, and all casinos are closed. The resort town of Gulfport is directly in Dennis's path, if the storm stays on course.

Brent Warr is the town's mayor, and he joins us now.

Not only are you directly in the path, but you're 26-feet above sea level. We spoke, Mayor, with Bonnie Schneider just moments ago, and they are expecting a storm surge of 19 feet. This has got to cause some concern.

BRENT WARR, MAYOR, GULFPORT: Well, that's right. That's right, it is very concerning. I believe that we do have all the preparations made that we can make. We've seen many storms before, but we have to be concerned with this one.

NGUYEN: What kind of preparations have you made so far?

WARR: Well, we closed the casinos; we have a lot of large casino here. Harrah's is probably the largest here in Gulfport. It closed midnight, last night. They have all been very, very cooperative, so we've gotten the casinos empty. We've opened seven shelters. We're prepared for 6,000 people in those shelters; still have less than 1,000 people in those shelters, but we are prepared for them.

NGUYEN: Why do you think less than 1,000 people so far?

WARR: Well, probably most of them evacuated. Remember, we have had a lot of storms down here in the past. People know which homes that stayed in the path but have been safe, that are in higher elevations. We did a very systematic evacuation. We started early yesterday in different zones, and kind of did it in a three-tiered process. A lot of people who are going to leave probably are this weekend.

NGUYEN: You mention you've had a lot of storms last year with a busy hurricane season, you had to shut down casinos just this weekend. What is the hurricane season, especially with Dennis coming to shore so early in the season and being so powerful, what is all of this doing to the economy there?

WARR: Well, our economy is actually very, very strong right now. We have a lot of condominium developments in the process, and we've always been very, very fortunate in the last, probably, 10 years that most of the storms have gone in, as this one appears to be, a little bit to our east. The economy - this could affect us.

Of course, if we get a direct hit, it will take us quite a while to dig out But we will do it; we've done it before. We have got tremendous people here, so we will continue to face these storms as they come.

NGUYEN: You sound pretty confident. But what advice do you give to residents, especially those who are still wondering what to do, have not decided whether to evacuate or not?

WARR: Well, the ones in the low-lying areas, they definitely should evacuate or go to the shelters, either way. We have some really good shelters, and we have high ground. Gulfport is a large geographically situated city, so we can evacuate to high ground pretty successfully. And they need to look after the elderly and the people with special needs. We need to make sure that we have all of them gathered up and close to their loved ones. If we can just get people in a safer structure, we will probably be OK. If there is a good side to a storm, we - it looks like we may be on it on this position on the west side, that is usually the best place to be in a situation like this.

NGUYEN: Well, Mayor Brent Warr, we hope you are OK. Obviously, you have done what it has taken to get people out of their homes and into shelters and evacuated. So we wish you the best - do stay safe.

WARR: Well, thank you so much, and God bless you, and we'll talk to you soon.

NGUYEN: Take care.

WARR: Thank you.

NGUYEN: The power of Dennis is well known to the citizens of Haiti and Cuba. The deadly storm has already cut a deadly path across the Caribbean. At least 22 people were killed in Haiti; 10 people died in eastern Cuba.

CNN Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman has details.


LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is where Hurricane Dennis said goodbye to the island of Cuba, exiting shortly after midnight with winds of up to 105 miles - or 168 kilometers - an hour.

"It was very strong; incredibly noisy. It blew the shingles right off our roof," said Gonzales (ph) from Guanabo Beach (ph) on the outskirts of the capital.

Havana awoke to find power had not been reestablished. Downed trees and branches strewn all over the capital have testament to the ferocity of which this storm flogged the Caribbean's largest island. In all, over 1.4 million people were evacuated from low lying areas and unsafe homes and buildings throughout Cuba. More than 16,000 of them foreign tourists, who had come here expecting to find sun and sand, and who, instead, are trapped in a hurricane that, for the month of July, is extremely rare.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a little bit scary in the beginning, but it was good - no problems.

NEWMAN: Damage was worst in southeastern Cuba, where downed power and communications lines, as was destruction to homes, was significant. Ten people were killed in eastern Cuba.

Earlier, Dennis took at least 22 lives in Haiti, while it was making its way towards Cuba. Massive mudslides and flooding, again, taking a tragic toll on that impoverished country that still hasn't recovered from last year's hurricanes.

In Cuba, the job of trying to get back to normal is already underway.

(on camera): All in all, the people of Havana are counting their blessings, although many say they see Hurricane Dennis as kind of an appetizer for what experts predict will be a particularly long and vicious hurricane season.

Lucia Newman, CNN, Havana.


NGUYEN: A Category 4 already, Hurricane Dennis keeps gaining strength and now, as we have mentioned, a Category 4 with winds up of 145 miles per hour. But what exactly does that mean? And what is in store for people along the Gulf Coast? We will give you a storm lesson. Plus:

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Standing out in the middle of a hurricane is not the most sensible thing to do.

NGUYEN: No, it sure isn't, but our reporters do it anyway. Our Anderson Cooper shares some stormy memories, when we come back. You want to stay tuned to CNN, your Hurricane Headquarters.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Over the last 100 years, there have been only three Category 5 hurricanes to hit the United States. In 1935, an unnamed storm slammed the Florida Keys, killing 423 people.

These pictures are from Camille in 1969 as she roared ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi. Property damages were so severe that sections of the Mississippi coast seemed to vanish.

Twenty-three years later, Florida was pounded by Hurricane Andrew.



BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning and welcome back to CNN, your Hurricane Headquarters, where we are updating you on Hurricane Dennis every 15 minutes. So let's get right to it. CNN meteorologist Bonnie Schneider joins us now. She has been tracking Hurricane Dennis for the last four hours, 15 minutes.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Oh, definitely. You know, I was just looking to see when high tide is going to occur for the Pensacola area. It looks like it is going to be around the midday time today. So that, combined with the storm surge, will result in storm surge somewhere in the area of 11 and 16 feet, but it could be worse, certainly, east of where Dennis makes landfall. So just keep that in mind that we are going to be watching when the high tides occur and when the storm comes in, because that is when we are likely to see the strongest storm surge, and we will see a lot of water coming in.

I just want to show you what is going on now with the rain situation: Right now, Tallahassee getting rain, much of Florida getting rain, and all the way into Georgia, that heavy rain and the flooding is likely to occur. We have got flood watches posted for a portion of Georgia, actually, because this moisture is moving up to the north, as well.

Now, as we take a look at our satellite perspective -- very impressive indeed - this hurricane has advanced now to the north. The movement has picked up just a slight bit, moving to the north, northwest about 15 miles per hour. Upgraded a bit, so moving a little bit faster than it was earlier this morning. Massive sustained winds - that's really the biggest news - 145 miles per hour. So a major Category 4 storm, and a large storm, an expansive storm. And that is so important because the larger the storm is the more people it is going to affect. We are talking about tropical storm force winds already affecting Florida right now, because they are outward 230 miles of this storm. And then hurricane force winds out with 40 miles -- really, whether it comes through Pensacola or Mobile, you are going to be seeing these hurricane force winds possibly as far west to the Mississippi, as well. So it is a large storm that will affect quite a bit of an area.

I just want to also point out something we have been mentioning throughout the night and into the morning: Notice this area here, the upper-right corner, or the northeast corner is where we are seeing the most confection. This is where we tend to get the worst weather, on the northeast side of the storm. Certainly the strongest winds are right here, along the eye wall, but in the northeast corner also will be bringing about some very stormy conditions and very, very catastrophic conditions because the storm is so big and so powerful, indeed.

Well, our tracking map shows you that we are expecting landfall. It is imminent, and we are expecting landfall later today, in the afternoon hours. According this, it is still coming in at 145 mile- per-hour maximum sustained winds. That is a major Category 4 hurricane. And, really, as the storm works its way inland, it is going to lose that much intensity. It is still a hurricane by tomorrow, and it will still bring flooding, wind, and rain to areas as far north as Memphis, Tennessee, northern Mississippi. Tomorrow, they will be dealing with a lot of rain for their morning commutes.

But the immediate threat, the immediate problem right now is areas around Mobile Bay. We will be watching very closely for flooding and for property damage, because when you have a Category 4 storm, you are talking about major damage. It is possible or likely for glass breaking doors and even roofs being ripped off. It has all been historically happening before when you have a Category 4 storm - Betty.

NGUYEN: Bonnie, let's talk about the numbers: Category 4; 145- mile-per-hour wind. Now, a Category 5 - and we don't want to alarm anybody - but a Category 5 is, what, 156-mile-per-hour winds?

SCHNEIDER: Yes, 155 or greater, that's when you get into that Category 5. And it is so unusual to see.

NGUYEN: Right.

SCHNEIDER: You do not see too many Category 5s. We had Hurricane Andrew back in 1992, first classified as a Category 4, then looked back upon and more information was evaluated, and it was classified as a Category 5 more recently. So it takes a lot to get there; it takes a lot to get that level, the most extreme. And when you look at that Saffir-Simpson scale, which is what we use to kind of indicate the intensity of these hurricanes, this one, Category 4, is considered extreme - catastrophic, major damage, very, very serious, indeed. So even though it is not the highest level, it is still major.

NGUYEN: But to be clear, we do not expect it to move into that Category 5 set?

SCHNEIDER: Not at this point. It is less than 200 miles away from making landfall at this point, so we are getting closer and closer to that time. According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, the winds don't change in their speed. I am sure we will be getting more advisories and they will be sending more aircraft in to give up the latest report. At this point, as a the 5:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time advisory, we are expecting winds to be sustained at 145 miles per hour. But still a strong, major Category 4 storm.

NGUYEN: Yes, that is nothing to laugh at. All right, a monster storm - Bonnie, thanks, we will be checking in with you in about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, Alabama's Gulf Coast is one of Hurricane Dennis's potential targets today.

Erica Fox, from our affiliate WALA, is on Dauphin Island, a place that has seen its share of storms.


ERICA FOX, CNN/WALA CORRESPONDENT: Hi, I'm at Fort Gaines, which is on the eastern side of Dauphin Island in southern Mobile County, where the wind has really started kicking up. We have not seen a lot of action all night. It has been very, very peaceful; very, very calm here in Dauphin Island, but now the wind is starting to kick up. In fact, let's go ahead and measure the wind right now, where you can see, it looks to be about 17, 18 miles per hour. It has kind of been kicking up sporadically. Earlier, it was 25 miles per hour; now it looks to be 22 miles an hour. So the wind is definitely kicking up.

Let's go ahead and look behind me at the Gulf. You can see the waves are kicking up themselves. And I have got a spotlight here; I can shine it on the water where you can see. Earlier tonight, this area was really, really peaceful, but the waves are getting more aggressive as the morning wears on.

Now, this area was really, really devastated by Hurricane Ivan, which was just 10 months ago. And that is why it is so important that so many people evacuated, because this area is extremely vulnerable. The structures have been really devastated by Ivan. A lot of them have not been repaired, so it is very important that a lot of people have evacuated, which they did. Which is a good thing, because it looks like we are going to be dealt another big blow with Dennis.


NGUYEN: This morning, we want to see how Hurricane Dennis is affecting the area where you live. So we are asking you to send your photos and video to But we do want to give you a word of caution: Please, don't do anything risky to get these photos. Your safety, of course, is most important.

So are they committed journalists or should they just be committed? Maybe it is a bit of both for reporters who enter the eye of a hurricane. Our Anderson Cooper has done his share of the dangerous duty, and he will look back on some stormy moments, when we return.

Just a reminder, we are here all day long. CNN is your Hurricane Headquarters.


BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Here is an update now on Hurricane Dennis: It is a menacing Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour. Dennis's path has moved slightly to the west, and is now expected to make landfall between the Alabama-Louisiana state line and Tallahassee, Florida. Meantime, Emergency Management officials say, more than half-million people have evacuated southern Alabama. The storm glanced the Florida Keys yesterday, but officials say, the area sustained little damage. In Panama City, the mayor says, 90 percent of residents have cleared out. Dennis has already killed 10 people in eastern Cuba. Reports from Haiti say as many as 22 people were killed there.

For journalists, covering a hurricane is sometimes like being on a frontline of a war zone. Here is a behind-the-scenes look from CNN's Anderson Cooper, who covered Hurricane Ivan last year.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Standing out in the middle of a hurricane is not the most sensible thing to do. The winds can easily knock you over, and debris is flying through the air.

The objective is to stay on the air as long as you can. To do that, CNN relies on a team of professionals who have covered dozens of storms.

True, they are a little bit crazy. During Hurricane Ivan, they tied a rope to my leg to try to keep me secure.

CHARLIE MOORE, CNN PRODUCER: All right, I'm serious. I am going to pull him out of there if he cannot sit out there.

COOPER (on camera): It's the glamour of this job that I love.

(voice-over): It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the storm; easy to be taken by its power and its strength.

(on camera): It's very difficult to stand. You really have to push yourself into the wind.

(voice-over): But the truth is, the hardest part of covering a hurricane is not standing out in a storm. The hard part is covering what the storm leaves behind. When the wind has died down and the sun returns, you see the devastation

(on camera): You see a bicycle over here; a candle, untouched, here.

(voice-over): Rooms shredded like cardboard; lives lost; lives forever changed. That, of course, is the true measure of a hurricane's power, and in the face of that power, we seem very small indeed.


NGUYEN: Well, traffic on the roads heading away from the Mississippi coast is thick as people rush away from the impending storm. We are going live to Gulfport in less than 10 minutes to check in on hurricane preparations there.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Hurricane Floyd formed into a powerful Category 4 on September 14, 1999. It ravaged portions of the Bahamas. Watch its destruction as Floyd tore apart a pier as it hit Daytona Beach, Florida. As Floyd turned north, it weakened a bit, but hit land again near Cape Fear, North Carolina. The high rainfall created massive inland flooding. Floyd is responsible for one death in the Bahamas, but claimed 56 lives in the United States.



BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Now a massive Category 4 storm, Dennis is just hours from landfall. Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider will have the full forecast in just a moment. But first, we'll check with the other headlines making news this morning.

Suicide bombers struck again in Iraq today, killing at least 30 people, and wounding more than 70 others in three separate attacks. The deadliest attack happened when a suicide bomber blew himself up at an army recruiting center in Baghdad. There were also car bomb attacks in Mosul and Kirkuk.

Evacuation orders have been lifted in Britain's second largest city of Birmingham. Police ordered thousands of people from the city yesterday, after receiving an intelligence threat. They found a suspicious package but later determined that it was not what they call a credible explosive device. 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 on a subway tunnel. Now, officials say, it could be weeks before identities are released.

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 this weekend, and we are getting you the latest on the storm every 15 minutes. You definitely want to stick around.

Keeping that promise, time now to check in with meteorologist Bonnie Schneider on Dennis - good morning, Bonnie.


We are looking at real-time radar now from Mobile, Alabama, and you can already see those outer bands coming in, and it does not look too menacing just yet, but, boy, will it ever be. We have got heavy rain coming through, as well. Downpours are existing all along the Gulf Coast, and this is going to be a powerful hurricane when it makes landfall, later today -- a Category 4. We had that upgrade earlier this morning, and we saw the winds increase just shortly after that. 145-mile-per-hour winds now, the storm has intensified.

The storm is taking advantage of the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico. Right now, the temperature is in the mid-80s. That is a lot of warm water that really adds fuel to the fire for a hurricane. It is the energy it needs to get going. And we are seeing, just as we would in a classic situation here where we have gotten much of the convection, the northeast corner or quadrant where we are seeing the worst of the weather, the stronger storms.

The eye looks a little bit like it is closing a bit as it gets closer to land, but I don't think so. This storm is not losing strength. It is actually going to come in just as strong as it is now, according to the National Hurricane Center. At winds 145-miles-per-hour, landfall is expected this afternoon. But remember, this is a large storm, not just in intensity, but in size and scale. We have tropical storm force winds outward of 230 miles from the storm's center. So we are seeing those winds right now along the Gulf Coast. Hurricane force winds extend outward of 40 miles. So whether or not this storm makes landfall towards Pensacola, towards Mobile, really, most of the locations in this region, especially along the border here of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Right in this area here, we are likely to see hurricane force winds.

One other thing to note, this is a powerful hurricane that even after it interacts with land - unlike what happened yesterday when it interacted with Cuba got downgraded to a Category 1 -- this time the storm is actually going to just stay pretty powerful, and even into Monday morning, still at Hurricane strength. Very unusual -- usually we see these things fall apart when they hit land. But Dennis is just too big and too powerful. And it is really going to affect so many people along this region. A major storm making impact this afternoon - Betty.

NGUYEN: You know, that really surprises me, and also the fact that this hurricane season has started so early. Do you have any indication as to why?

SCHNEIDER: Well, really, we just knew this was going to be an active year in the Tropics. But it is unusual to have four named storms already so early in July. And I believe this is the earliest we have seen a Category 4 storm appear on record, as well. So this is going to be one for the record books, that is for sure.

NGUYEN: A Category 4 major storm headed toward the coastline - thank you, Bonnie.


NGUYEN: Now in Mississippi, thousands are fleeing the low-lying areas as the hurricane is expected to make landfall somewhere along the coast of the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, or Mississippi. It is a large area there.

CNN's Peter Viles is in Gulfport, Mississippi, with the latest on what is happening there - hi, Peter.

PETER VILES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Betty, you just heard from Bonnie about some heavy rains in Mobile. We are 60 miles west of Mobile, and we just started to feel our first rain of this storm. It is just a little sprinkle, but we have the feeling we are going to be feeling it for quite a while.

You had talked, Betty, with the mayor of Gulfport, Mississippi, and he had said, at one point, that if we get hit, we will bounce back. I think he was referring to a storm that has legendary status here; that is Camille in 1969. One of the only Category 5s ever to hit the United States, had winds of 190 miles an hour. It came ashore here, on the Mississippi-Alabama border; killed 143 people here in Alabama and Mississippi, and was so powerful - Bonnie was talking about this storm will be powerful even into Monday. Camille was similar, so powerful that it continued up to Virginia and killed 13 people in heavy flooding in Virginia. All that said is a way of saying that this area has a healthy respect for this storm, especially after Ivan last year -- which was not a direct hit here -- but people here are very aware of what Ivan did to Pensacola. So when the evacuation orders were given here, just about 13 hours ago, our understanding is that people are taking them pretty seriously -- Betty.

NGUYEN: Back to these storms: You mention Camille - in fact, I know going through that area, you can still see some of the boats that Camille washed or blew to ashore in some of the yards, still to this day.

VILES: Yes, and you know, one of the things you can see from Camille is what you can't see, and that is, you go through big stretches of the coastline here, and all the buildings are fairly recent. That is not because it was unsettled 40 years ago; it is because so many of the buildings were destroyed in 1969 by Hurricane Camille, which came through in August, and as we said, was one of the only Category 5s ever to hit the United States.

NGUYEN: Well, the good thing this is not a Category 5, at least as of yet. Hopefully, it will not ever get there. But still a very powerful storm, Peter - Category 4. We will be watching -- we thank you.

Now, predictions put the path of Hurricane Dennis west of Pensacola, Florida. One of the cities that may be in the line of fire is Mobile, Alabama. Dennis could be packing winds around 150 miles an hour when it hits there. Capt. Debbie Bryars of the Mobile Fire Department joins us live on the phone.

When you hear about these winds, Debbie, you are the ones who are prepared to get on the streets and be there when people call for help. What kind of fear, what kind of worry does it put in your mind?

CAPT. DEBBIE BRYARS, MOBILE FIRE DEPT.: There is a lot of concern in our area right now about the storm. We see an increase in speed, and I was kind of listening as we went along, there is a lot of respect for this storm, here as well. Right now, our main concern is not only the wind, but the water. We are going to have to deal with that, too. So there is a lot of preparation for that.

NGUYEN: So how are you preparing for that?

BRYARS: Well, one thing that we have done with the fire department is we moved a lot of our people inland. We try to protect our people and our equipment, as well. The main thing is that we realize that during the storm there is very little to nothing that we can do for our community here, but it will be shortly after that we will need to try to dispatch. If the storm comes in as they predicted, there is going to be a lot of destruction, and it is going to be a time consuming process, even for us to get out to our community.

But we have called in all of our firefighters, and around 400 people are out there bunked up in the different areas of the city. And we have got extra equipment, and we've done all we can to prepare for the aftermath.

NGUYEN: I think you said something very important there. Once this storm hits, you guys are going to be bracing yourselves. You are not going to be out on the streets until it is all clear and safe to go out and reach the people who are calling for help. Have you received any calls as of yet from people who may not be able to get to those shelters, or who may be concerned. What kind of advice are you giving them?

BRYARS: We have. We have had a few, and we've addressed those, but we sat down at about 2:00 this morning, and we got to looking at the areas that are flood prone anyway and some areas that we have problems in. Along with asking people to please evacuate, we realize that there are some people who will need some extra help.

So through Mercy Management here - that's the office that I'm working from now - we are trying to make preparations in the morning, between 7:00 and 8:00. We have several -- I think it is seven now - pickup points, for people who live in those low lying areas, that there will be a bus there for them. And we are asking them to meet us at these pre-assigned points in the city to be transported out into a safer environment, hopefully to one of our shelters.

NGUYEN: So you are not only putting out the call for evacuations into shelters, you are actually escorting people, providing them with rides to get to those shelters?


NGUYEN: All right, we appreciate your time. Best of luck to you, and we will be checking in - stay safe through the storm, Debbie.

BRYARS: Thank you.

NGUYEN: As Hurricane Dennis barrels towards the Gulf Coast, we will meet a family who has decided to wait out the storm in a shelter rather than take their chances at home. That is ahead in three minutes on CNN, your Hurricane Headquarters.


BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hurricane Dennis has spurred evacuations all along the northern Gulf Coast. Best guess for landfall is between Pensacola, Florida, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Now Dennis could be blowing around 155 miles per hour by then. Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for nearly 1.5 million people in the low lying coastal counties.

Amid those one million evacuations, there are, indeed, a million personal stories. In our next report, we sum up seven of them. It involves one family, the familiar flight, and a little girl's very special friend.

Here is Susan Roesgen of CNN affiliate WGNO.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN/WGNO CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the rain started to come down, they straggled in, seven members of the same family, ranging in age from 80 years old to just three months. Like a lot of families in Pensacola, they had planned to ride out the storm at home.

SARAH MILSTADE, GRANDMOTHER: We got scared. My son kept worrying about us, and he started getting on the phone and saying, "Get out, get out." We were going to stay, you know.

This shelter helped 1,200 people in Hurricane Ivan, and about half that many are here right now. But none cling more tightly to each other than the Milstade family, all seven of them, plus one more in the arms of 8-year-old Ashley.

What do you think about going in the shelter?

ASHLEY MILSTADE, EVACUEE: Well, I haven't been to a shelter before, so I get a little scared.

ROESGEN: Did you bring a dolly?


ROESGEN: Does she have a name?


ROESGEN: What is her name?



NGUYEN: The good news is they are in a shelter tonight. That was Susan Roesgen of CNN affiliate WGNO.

Now, we are going to talk about the dangers of a storm surge in just a moment, with meteorologist Bonnie Schneider. But first, here she is with an update on how fast Dennis is moving.

Bonnie, how long until landfall.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I would say this afternoon, Betty. We did see an increase in speed just recently, only by one mile per hour in movements to the northwest, at 15 miles per hour instead of 14. And right now, the storm is about 170 miles south of Panama City, so it is still not quite yet making landfall. But we are definitely feeling the affects already in terms of wind and rain. Now, the strongest affect - this is a Category 4; a really major hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 145 miles per hour. So that is going to be really being felt, I would say, towards the afternoon.

A Category 4, let's take a closer, because this is just an incredible storm with winds at 145 miles per hour. You can see that it can bring a storm surge up to 18 feet. Though some of the advisories I have been reading say that we could see storm surge up to 19 feet. Widespread structural damage is possible and likely. Very large trees blown down; anything that is loose in the backyard will blow around. But even stronger than that, there could be structural damage to buildings, and flooding up to six miles inland. Nationally, massive evacuations have already occurred, and they are required when you get to Category 4.

Now, as the storm comes on shore, instead of falling apart, instead of losing its strength and not being a headache anymore, Hurricane Dennis continues to be a problem well into Monday. Evan at 2:00 a.m. it still has 75-miles-per-hour wind, so it is coming in as a hurricane and it is going to stay a hurricane, really, on into Monday. We will see flooding, as well for much of this region - on into Mississippi, on into Tennessee - for a good portion of Monday, after it makes landfall. In fact, there are flood watches already posted. You can see, through Alabama, even into parts of Tennessee already, and then back out to Georgia, we even have plenty of flood warning being posted even more, I think, throughout the day, as the storm works its way in.

Now, let's talk about the track, and we will talk about the rain. We have got a tornado watch in affect - that's been there for a while now - for northern parts of Florida, southern Georgia. The strong energy of the storm already bringing about the potential for tornadoes, as we see those quick shifts in wind, we could see that rotation develop where we take the spin and we get a tornado popping up. So be prepared. As the storm works its way in, we may see some tornadoes break out, just another problem with a major hurricane, making landfall later this afternoon.

On the bigger picture now, you can see the that the moisture, the precipitation, not even really making it into New Orleans just yet. Only recently did it start raining in Mississippi. I'll step out of the way so you get a better viewpoint. But you can see the rain working its way well up into the Southeast, where the tornado watch is posted.

Again, we are watching for landfall for this hurricane later this afternoon. A major hurricane, indeed, that is going to cause major problems. And because of that, we just want to let everybody know so they really can keep this safety information, have your NOAA weather radio handy; keep the batteries handy. Listen to your local authorities and, of course, evacuate if ordered. This is not a storm where you want to take a chance and see how it goes; it is a major hurricane, with maximum winds at 145 miles per hour. Expected landfall is this afternoon, somewhere in the vicinity of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama, or the extreme, more western sections of Florida. But, really, the entire region will be feeling the effects of this powerful storm.

NGUYEN: Yes, no need to question it, just evacuate those areas - Bonnie, thank you.

SCHNEIDER: Sure. NGUYEN: Well, we have a Category 4 storm very early in the hurricane season. Now, there is concern that this year could be as bad as 2004 when six major storms came ashore. We take a look back at last year's devastation. That's next on this special edition of CNN SUNDAY MORNING.


BETTY NGUYEN, ANCHOR: Here is a quick check on the latest that we have on Dennis: It is a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour. Dennis's path has moved slightly to the west, which means it will make landfall somewhere between the Mississippi- Alabama state line and Tallahassee, Florida. Emergency Management officials say, more than half a million people have evacuated southern Alabama. And the storm glanced the Florida Keys yesterday, but officials say, the area sustained little damage. And in Panama City, the mayor says, 90 percent of residents have already cleared out.

Now, Dennis has already killed 10 people in eastern Cuba. Reports from Haiti say as many as 22 people were killed there.

As we anticipate the arrival of Dennis, you have to wonder if this year's hurricane season will be anywhere near as devastating as last year's. Six major hurricanes raked the country in '04, shattering the national average of about five hurricanes every three years. We have a report here from meteorologist Chad Myers. Now, it was filed last year when we were still stinging from that dreadful summer.


CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Without a doubt, wild, wicked weather defines the 2004 hurricane season. With 14 named storms and six major hurricanes, this has been one of the most intense and deadly seasons on record. But why was this year so extreme?

Scientists found that several factors were to blame for creating the perfect storm season. They say a warm Atlantic Ocean, low wind shear, and irregular rainfall patterns, combined with powerful currents, steered a record number of storms toward land.

Experts say that coastal residents should brace themselves. Stormy weather like this may be around for a while. They say, the Tropics are in a very active phase in this current storm cycle, a climatic condition characterized by more or less severe hurricane seasons. And this one packed the punch.

PHILIP KLOTZBACH, RESEARCHER, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY: It looks, in general, that probably the next 10 to 15 years, most of them are probably going to be active years.

MYERS: Although experts admit they do not have all the answers. Researchers at Colorado State University have worked for over two decades to fine tune the science of storm forecasting. They compare historic storm data, sea surface temperatures, and other records to current data, and try to predict how long a cycle will last and how busy a storm season will be. They found that the 19 named storms that defined the 1995 Atlantic hurricane season whipped through the warmest ocean temperatures on record. That hot event was the start of a very active phase in the current storm cycle, marked by stronger, longer, and more frequent storms than decades past.

KLOTZBACH: The seasons have tended to be fairly active since 1995. And the activity this year was somewhat even above that.

MYERS: Florida was the first state in over a century to be hit by four hurricanes in one season. Scientists say they have never seen so many storms hit the same place so fast in recorded history. They blame the high hurricane activity and irregular wind currents for sending so many storms to the state.

And this storm season broke records. Ivan became the longest lasting major hurricane in over a century. It stayed active for over 22 days. Hurricane Frances caused the largest evacuation in Florida history, with over 3 million forced to flee.

And with over $20 billion in sure loses so far, 2004 stands to be the most expensive hurricane season in U.S. history.

Chad Myers, CNN, Atlanta.


NGUYEN: And CNN is enlisting your help in our coverage of Hurricane Dennis. Many of you have sent us your cell phone video or digital pictures of the damage in your area. We are getting some great responses from our citizen journalists - as we like to call them out there.

Here is a picture of a tree that landed on a car in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Goodness, can you imagine that: just waking up and seeing your car like that. Somebody is going to be called this morning; that insurance adjuster is going to have to be out there.

And take a look at this: Punta Gorda, Florida, is still reeling from last year's Hurricane Charley. Now, once again, pictures of flooded streets in the area.

And don't be fooled by this picture of what looks like a calm day at the beach. Well, those waves, they appear to be pretty strong, and you definitely want to stay off the beach today as Dennis comes ashore.

So how is Hurricane Dennis affecting your area? Send us your photos and cell phone video to But a word of caution to you: Please, do not do anything risky to shoot those shots. Your safety, of course, is most important.

Extended coverage of Hurricane Dennis rolls on next hour when CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien bring you a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING. Expect live reports from all along the Gulf Coast, including live updates on the powerful storm's progress from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. A special edition of AMERICAN MORNING - that's next.

And I'll see you back here tonight for overnight coverage of Hurricane Dennis.



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