NAVARRE BEACH, Fla. – The first hard look at the spot where Hurricane Dennis rolled ashore revealed beachfront homes scoured to their pilings, roofs torn off, buckled roads and washed-out beaches – damage that was mercifully isolated.
But distant flooded villages and rural towns also suffered pockets of destruction, and they provided a glimpse of the possible misery to come as the hurricane’s remnants sweep through the South.
“It’s total devastation,” said Steve Dunbar, who stood in muck left behind when chest-deep chocolate-brown water filled his tavern and the rest of the tiny fishing village of St. Marks, 175 miles east of where 120-mph Dennis roared ashore Sunday afternoon.
The town of 325 people 20 miles south of Tallahassee had been known as one of Florida’s most scenic spots, where tourists could sit on the porch of the famed Posey’s Oyster Bar, drink a few beers and watch the sun set over the fishing fleet.
Now its handful of restaurants, taverns, the post office and lone grocery store were filled with water and mud from the receding floods, the electricity was out, and the streets were littered with beer coolers, tables, chairs and even a bar.
“I’m going to put up a sign, ‘Interior by Dennis,’ ” joked Dunbar, who planned to open again in a few days, even though he doesn’t have insurance. “We’re not going to quit.”
Along the Florida line in Flomaton, Ala., a town once known for its big, beautiful oak trees, it was hard not to find a yard without at least one tree down, some on top of homes. It seemed that those trees spared by Ivan last year were felled this time around by Dennis.
“They’re just about all gone now. It has really made a difference in the landscape,” said Ronald Carnley, a barber who was cleaning up after Dennis ripped off the roof. “You can’t come up with a plan for something like this. There’s no plan for something that’s this devastating.”
As Dennis moved north and became a tropical depression, it dumped anywhere from 3 to 8 inches of rain over Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, and was expected to continue causing the threat of flooding and tornadoes as it stalled over the Ohio Valley.
Some of the worst came as Dennis marched up through the heart of Georgia, dumping 8 inches of rain in 24 hours in some areas and forcing hundreds to evacuate.
In Mableton, Ga., Mary Anne Lunsford was up before dawn Monday watching television news about Dennis, when her dog ran inside with feet soaking wet.
Lunsford followed the pooch tracks downstairs and saw the water destruction wasn’t just on TV but throughout her neighborhood. Her kitchen was under 11 inches of water and a basement office and two cars in the driveway were totally submerged.
“I never dreamed in my lifetime this would happen to me,” she said. “I’ve seen it on TV a million times, but I never thought it would be me, never.”
A far different flood was emerging on the highways, where some of the 1.8 million who heeded Dennis’ evacuations returned home, with not enough gas to go around. There were widespread reports of gas shortages in northwest Florida and southwest Alabama, where troopers said there was no gas to be found along an 80-mile stretch of Interstate 65.
Dennis was a powerful but swift storm that weakened and made a right turn just before making landfall, sparing the city Pensacola and other heavily populated parts of the Panhandle. It instead made landfall between less populous Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach.
Its relatively small size – with hurricane winds extending just 40 miles – also kept Dennis from becoming another Ivan, which killed 29 people in the Panhandle and caused $7 billion in damage across the South last year.
Gov. Jeb Bush, who toured the landfall zone of Florida’s fifth hurricane in 11 months, downplayed the idea that Dennis was a dud.
“It didn’t fizzle out. It was a Category 2 storm that hit. It’s going to create serious problems for a lot of people,” he said. “I think we were all expecting it to be so far worse. So from that baseline, we say, ‘OK good.’ But this was a serious storm.”
Dennis was responsible for at least 20 deaths in the Caribbean and a handful in the United States, including a 3-year-old boy run over by his father’s car as the family was preparing to evacuate in DeFuniak Springs, a man electrocuted in Fort Lauderdale when he stepped on a fallen power line, and a Georgia man killed in his sleep by a falling poplar tree.
About 383,000 were without power Monday afternoon, including 242,000 in Florida.
Dennis caused an estimated $1 billion to $2.5 billion in insured damage in the United States, according to a projection by AIR Worldwide Corp. of Boston, an insurance risk modeling company.
Monday afternoon, authorities bused residents of Navarre Beach over the bridge and allowed them to walk down the sand-choked road to explore their homes.
Large portions of the island’s main road were buckled or washed away. Other sections were draped with pieces of parking lot or covered in the powdery-white sand. A restaurant still being repaired from Ivan was razed to its floorboards.
Helmeted teams of firefighters searched for stragglers who might have ridden out the storm.