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Gulf Coast residents staying put

Jaime Trujillo carries his bike across a flooded street in Key West, Fla., after the eye of Hurricane Dennis passed west of the island on Saturday. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Jaime Trujillo carries his bike across a flooded street in Key West, Fla., after the eye of Hurricane Dennis passed west of the island on Saturday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

PENSACOLA, Fla. – With authorities urging her and more than a million others to flee, Melba Turner was weary as she prepared for yet another hurricane that was on a path to smash into the Gulf Coast.

“I’m tired of all this packing up,” the 70-year-old said as she got ready to clear out of Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle. “We look like the Beverly Hillbillies when we get all packed up and leave. I’d rather stay. We’re getting too old for all this fussing.”

But not everyone heeded the evacuation orders issued as Hurricane Dennis lumbered toward an expected direct hit today in the same area that was devastated by Hurricane Ivan just 10 months ago. Residents pounded pieces of plywood into place over windows and some gassed up generators to ride out the storm churning with 100-mph winds.

On Saturday, Dennis dealt a glancing blow to the Florida Keys, knocking out power and leaving streets flooded with seaweed. The hurricane also was blamed for at least 20 deaths in Haiti and Cuba, where the storm hit as a Category 4 storm with 145-mph winds.

Cuban state radio said hundreds of homes around Cuba’s southeastern coast had been destroyed or heavily damaged, and civil defense officials said more than 1.5 million people had fled their homes. At least 100 people were missing in Haiti following floods, mudslides and the collapse of a bridge triggered by Hurricane Dennis, a U.N. official said.

For the U.S. Gulf Coast, it carried a threat of more than a half-foot of rain plus waves and storm surge that could be more than a story high when it makes landfall Sunday. A hurricane warning was in effect from the Steinhatchee River, about 130 miles north of Tampa, to the Louisiana-Mississippi border.

Dennis had grown to a Category 4 storm with 150 mph sustained wind early Friday, but it weakened when it crossed Cuba. It regained strength Saturday and by evening had top sustained winds of 125 mph, just 6 mph shy of Category 4 and still increasing.

“Category 4 is not just a little bit worse – it’s much worse,” said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center in Miami. “The damage increases exponentially as the wind speed increases. And no matter where it makes actual landfall, it’s going to have a tremendous impact well away from the center.”

In Alabama, about 500,000 people were under evacuation orders, as were 700,000 in Florida and 190,000 in Mississippi. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urged residents to evacuate if they were told to do so.

Traffic doubled on some Mississippi highways as people fled inland from the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Louisiana. Alabama officials turned Interstate 65 into a one-way route north from the coast to Montgomery.

However, confident that the hurricane would make landfall farther east, officials in New Orleans told nearly half a million residents they could stay home. A voluntary evacuation was lifted for suburban Jefferson Parish, including the barrier island town of Grand Isle.

“We want you to be somewhat comfortable, but not totally relaxed,” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said Saturday.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Dennis’ eye was 250 miles south of Panama City in the Panhandle and 340 miles southeast of Biloxi, Miss. After missing Key West by about 125 miles, it was moving northwest at about 13 mph and expected to turn to the north before making landfall, forecasters said.

Despite the storm’s threat, many people refused to be scared away.

“I always stay,” nightclub worker Clifton Pugh said in Gulf Shores, Ala. “I’ve never evacuated. We don’t have any place to go. We’ll have a couple of decks of cards and some candles and flashlights.”

Some neighborhoods in Mobile, Ala., had the appearance of a typical Saturday as people mowed lawns, jogged and shopped.

“God’s going to take care of me,” Dorothy McGee of Prichard, Ala., said as she shopped for groceries. And besides, she said, “I have nowhere to go.”

Dennis largely spared the Florida Keys as the eye passed west of the islands early Saturday, but more than 211,000 homes and businesses lost power Saturday across the southern tip of Florida, including the entire city of Key West. Crews worked to restore power when the winds and rain died down.

Branches, street signs and other debris littered Key West’s streets. Waves washed sand and coral onto a main road, and parts of the tourist drag of Duval Street were under about a foot and a half of water. No injuries were reported.