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Hurricane Dennis Headed for Pensacola, Florida

Aired July 10, 2005 - 09:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back everybody. You're looking at some picture just in to CNN. These are live pictures from our affiliate WEAR in Pensacola, Florida. Of course, all eye on Pensacola this morning, and Mobile, Alabama as well because Pensacola right in the path of Hurricane Dennis as it churns its way to make landfall at about 2 o'clock eastern time today.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Dennis on its way to wearing out its welcome already. Let's go up to the weather center where we have Rob Marciano. As a matter of fact, the latest update just came in from the National Weather Service. Tell us about that.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Miles we mentioned a few minutes ago that the airplane that was sending back the raw data indicated a drop of one millibar in intensity or in pressure, which would bump up the intensity a little bit. They have not upped the winds so the winds still sustained at 140 miles an hour as a category- 4 storm. The speed has picked up by one mile an hour, so now it's moving north, northwesterly at 16 miles an hour. And now we're getting -- that's one to two maybe even three miles an hour faster tan what you would see on average. So it doesn't change really the timing of the landfall at all because we anticipated maybe that happing, but the track has not changed at all.

Want to show you the Titan radar that we have for you. Again, a lot of heavy rain now moving into the Appalachicola area and Panama City Beach. And now it looks like the center of this thing to right around Gulf Shores is about 116 miles away. And again, it can go anywhere from there all the way back to Destin. So timing this thing out again anywhere from six to eight hours.

If it goes to Mobile it will be just under eight hours as far as the eye making landfall. If it goes a little bit farther to the right then we're talking -- we're off landfall by about a good two hours or better. So the direction of this thing certainly will be -- will effect exactly when it makes landfall.

It looks like the eye has collapsed just a little bit in the last couple of frames. But we've been talking about these cycles that hurricanes typically go through. There will be an outer wall, eye wall that develops around the inner one stealing some of that energy, collapses briefly and then re-intensifies. So that's a possibility as well and certainly the data from the airplane running through there indicates that it's not weakening whatsoever.

In the last couple of frames it kind of makes a bit of a right drop, so worried out that you should be in Pensacola and Destin and Panama City. A lot of these times they'll jog left and right, so we'll see if that moves back onto the anticipated track. I just wanted to point that out to you.

All right. I want to flip things around a little bit show you a pretty cool animation that gives you an idea of what things would look like if you were looking from the north south into the Gulf of Mexico. Here's Mobile, Alabama, Pensacola, Florida. We're obviously looking somewhere say, Montgomery, Alabama looking south. And here's your time clock beginning at 8:30 this morning eastern time. So if you live in this part of the world certainly subtract an hour as far as the timing is concerned. But it gives you a pretty good idea of the rain, the wind, the waves as this thing begins to make inroads.

And again, the forecast track is for it to come somewhere around the Mobile Bay area with winds of 145 miles an hour. We've been mentioning that that is stronger than what Hurricane Frederick was back in 1979. That is stronger also than what Hurricane Ivan was just a year ago.

One hundred and thirty mile an hour winds is the bottom range of a category-4 storm and that range goes all the way up to 155. We are on the higher end, I suppose, of that range. Storm surge 13 to 18 feet, widespread structural damage with a storm of this magnitude. Soledad we certainly saw that last year with Hurricane Charley when it made that right turn into Punta Gorda, and right now category-4 storm is what it is and it is forecast to remain that for landfall anywhere from four to eight hours from now.

That's the latest from here. Back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: Let me ask you a couple of quick questions, Rob. How do you know? I mean at what point can you say definitively for the folks who are waiting to see if it in fact is there city that's going to be the place that's hit? I mean at what point do you have a better idea where it's really going to hit?

MARCIANO: Well, obviously the closer and closer you get the better idea you have. What the guys, our friends our colleagues, the experts in the National Hurricane Center will tell you time and gain do not concentrate on the exact path of the storm. We have winds that extend in a tropical storm force manner outwards 200 miles. The hurricane force winds extend outward 40 to 50 miles. So you can have a number of cities within a 50 to 100 mile an hour range that will get pummeled by this storm.

So unless you're in a sadistic form placing bets at the office in some kind of company pool there's really no real reason to focus on any one particular city. Biloxi, Mississippi all the way over towards Panama City that is the range we're looking at and right now the highest probability according to the latest forecast from the National Hurricane Center still puts it somewhere close to Mobile.

You saw that jogged on the satellite pictures.

S. O'BRIEN: Right. MARCIANO: So, we'll watch that in the next hour and see if it goes back tot he west. There it is again. It kind of -- you know these things -- I can't help but think about, you know, watching these professional bowlers that have that incredible bowling action where the ball goes all the way down the lane and then it -- as soon as it gets to the pins it makes that right turn. We seem to see that time and again when covering these hurricanes.

S. O'BRIEN: Really?

MARCIANO: They seem to be on a track, on a track, on a track, they get close to land, especially in the higher latitudes, and they make that right turn. Certainly it's fresh on my mind at least from Charley. So that's why -- that's the reason for -- the last couple of frames for this now gets the eye a little bit more well defined. So it's probably coming out of that eye wall replacement cycle likely strengthening, so...

M. O'BRIEN: Let's get this straight though because the timing is very important here because obviously if it makes that right turn the coast is closer and you're talking about within five hours.

MARCIANO: That's correct.

M. O'BRIEN: ...potentially if it makes a turn toward Pensacola, Panama City, right?

MARCIANO: That's right. I'm trying to -- see I'm messing with my button here, Miles. You're right about that.

M. O'BRIEN: Is that about right?

MARCIANO: Here we go. So here's Mobile or just east Mobile about seven hours. You go farther to the west we're talking over seven hours. You get over towards the Pensacola area and we're talking just under six hours as far as the eye making landfall. Obviously that's the strongest part of the storm, so what's six hours from now 3 p. eastern time. But hurricane force winds extend out from the eye by 40 miles or so. So that would bring hurricane force winds into this vicinity three hours prior to that. So you're talking noon time we should start to see hurricane force winds from Destin, Panama City getting to about the Florida, Alabama border.

These are live wind speeds right now interprolated in most cases and anywhere from 25 to 35 miles an hour at times those...

M. O'BRIEN: Let's underscore that last point because we do this a lot when we do this coverage we focus on the eye and what is in advance of the eye can be very dangerous. And so when we say landfall is in six or seven hours subtract what two or three hours?

MARCIANO: Yes I would -- three hours. So it's moving at 16 miles an hour.

M. O'BRIEN: Right. All right, winds...

MARCIANO: It's got a 40 mile swath around it.

M. O'BRIEN: Forty miles an hour swath so 16 times two is 32, so that's...

MARCIANO: That's two hours right there. So figure -- you're right. Subtract about three hours so figure noon time eastern time, 11 a.m. central time is when you'll tart to see -- feel hurricane force winds right around the panhandle of Florida.

M. O'BRIEN: I sure hope people are listening to that because that's really important.

S. O'BRIEN: That's why they told people if they were thinking about getting to a shelter just don't because now it's really too late to make that trek. I mean you're going to get caught in the middle of something. Not the eye itself because landfall won't come until several hours after that. But certainly at noon we're going to see some serious damage.

MARCIANO: While we're talking about timing Soledad and Miles I want to point out one other thing that as a category-4 or even if it downgrades to a category-3, as a major hurricane moving at 16, 17 or 18 miles an hour before this thing dissipates to a less damaging tropical storm status it will have traveled inland over 150 miles. So as far.

M. O'BRIEN: So there's that too. I mean...

MARCIANO: Yes, I mean Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Alabama these are cities that are going to see some damage from this from the wind alone.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. All right, Rob, thank you very much for all of that. We appreciate it. You've shed a lot of light on this for us.

Randi Kaye is on the -- we go from the 22,000 mile up view to the five feet above the surface view. Randi Kaye offers that for us in Pensacola, Florida.

Randi, how is it doing there?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's -- the rain is starting to come in Miles, certainly where we are. We're at the Ramada Inn hotel and just nearby Escambia Bay. That's it in the background here. We're joined today by Linda Parkinson who is the general manager here who actually was here at the hotel during Hurricane Ivan. What do you remember about that, Linda?

LINDA PARKINSON, GEN. MANAGER RAMADA INN PENSACOLA: Well, my memories are terror of course. We were all very frightened, but we pulled together and got things done and took care of our guests.

I remember most about the bridge going down and seeing the truck up on top of the bridge.

KAYE: You're talking about the I-10 bridge out there in the distance.


KAYE: There was a trucker who was one of the more well known fatalities from Hurricane Ivan.

PARKINSON: Right, right.

KAYE: What do you remember seeing there?

PARKINSON: Well, we saw the door open and it was almost sure that he had tried to get out of the truck and we could see that the bridge was gone. It was very frightening. We also -- there wasn't a leaf on the tree. That was one of the things we remembered. One good thing that happened inside the hotel that night we had a piano player in and he was playing and the water was coming up. It was just like the Titanic, you know, we were all sinking but we having fun and...

KAYE: How much water did you get in the hotel?

PARKINSON: We had I would say in some places we had as much as four inches, some two inches. Some of the ceilings were caving in, but people were in good spirits. We had buckets on the beds so they could catch the water...

KAYE: Because the roof was leaking?

PARKINSON: The roof was leaking.

KAYE: The part of the roof that was still here because you lost some of it.

PARKINSON: Yes we lost quite a bit of the roof, yes. We have a new roof now thank God, so we're hoping that this time we're going to be great.

KAYE: And just looking out here I just want to point out that that smaller sign there for your hotel just a moment ago you were saying to me, oh no. what is it about that sign that you're worried about?

PARKINSON: Well, we just had it replaced last week and it's going to go again. I can see it shaking every time we get the breeze.

KAYE: It sure was. And what about this large one up there?

PARKINSON: The large sign, as you can see it has a patch on it now. It has been welded, but when the eye of the storm of Ivan came over I looked out the window and I saw the words Ramada on it and I'm going, oh my gosh I didn't know there was Ramada on both sides. And then all of a sudden it just started spinning and spinning and spinning and I thought oh dear God I hope it doesn't come off and it didn't.

KAYE: It's not supposed to spin.

PARKINSON: No it's not a rotating sign.

KAYE: How prepared are we here? I'm asking obviously for selfish reasons, but how prepared is this hotel to sustain a hurricane that's category-4?

PARKINSON: Well, I really feel we're very safe. Our windows are category four windows. Our building is concrete block. I feel like we're very safe here. And I feel like the mother of 400 people trying to make sure everybody is safe right now. We have guests from Czechoslovakia and all over, so we're -- I know we're going to be fine with God's help.

KAYE: I know you lost your home in Hurricane Ivan and you've been living here at the hotel and Linda cooked all of us breakfast this morning because her cooks didn't make it here because of the weather, so we want to thank you for that and thanks so much for your time this morning. We hope that Hurricane Dennis is not as bad as we're all expecting. The waiting is awful.


M. O'BRIEN: You know, Randi, I was really worried about you and the crew until you just introduced us to Linda. I think it's going to be OK. You've got just the right person there. She -- you have a bit of a mother hen and that's good. So stay close to Linda, OK.

KAYE: Miles, Linda can hear you so she's getting quite a giggle out of that one.

M. O'BRIEN: We wish you well and you're doing a great job. Thanks for taking care of everybody there. That's a lot of responsibility.

KAYE: It sure is. Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Panama City beach is on the eastern edge of the projected path of Hurricane Dennis and that's where Chad Myers is hunkered down I thin it's fair to say this morning. Hey, Chad. How's it looking out there?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Soledad. Our peak wind gust now 43 miles per hour. Had one overnight at 55 miles per hour and it really starts coming in. This is the point where you wonder why you're wearing any rain gear at all because the wind blows right through it. And so the entire area here locked down. About three or four hours ago we were still seeing police on the road. Now I haven't seen a police drive up and down, fire rescue. They are hunkered down. Either they are off the island or they are at higher ground.

If you look behind me there is the ocean. We are still almost four hours to high tide. High tide is going to be two feet higher than what it is now and this area -- I'm only standing about four feet above where the sea level is now. Winds are already eight to 12 feet out there. No surfers here. They were out last night believe it or not. They were out until about 8 o'clock last night, but now they are in and everybody hunkered down.

It's too late to do anything at this point except hunker down. You can't put up plywood in this wind. You can't really even get outside. You can't drive around in this and folks that are still here I guess they've seen a couple of them, but I don't think they want to see this one. We're on the right side of this eye wall. I suspect winds are going to get well over 100 miles per hour and where I'm standing will probably be covered up with five to six feet of water, so I don't think we'll be here the entire day. We have higher hotel rooms to get into. We'll be broadcasting up there later as the water comes up.

S. O'BRIEN: Hey, Chad, let me ask you a question about that little anemometer you've got in your hands there. How -- to what height can it record the winds? I mean at what point will it not work?

MYERS: It's rated up to about 95 miles per hour, but I think at that point I'm going to be inside.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, I was going to advise -- that was my next point, Chad. We don't want to see that.

MYERS: All right.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Chad, thanks a lot for that update. We'll get back to you later.

MYERS: Talk to you again.

M. O'BRIEN: Chad's hand is rated to about 60 miles an hour, so he probably shouldn't' try that and definitely don't attach it to the hat because that doesn't look so good.

S. O'BRIEN: And when he's holding the water level way above his head.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, yes.

S. O'BRIEN: That can't be good.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, it's good to see Chad checking in with us and he'll keep us posted from Panama City.

S. O'BRIEN: Much more to come on our coverage, our special coverage of Hurricane Dennis. We're going to take a look at how disaster experts are gearing up to help those who are going to be affected by the hurricane and what those people are doing to prepare for the very worse.

M. O'BRIEN: Also we're going to go to Cuba. A lot of damage caused by Dennis there, some fatalities to tell you about as well, very serious storm. And also this, we're going to see what you see all day today pictures from affected areas. I'm not sure what we're seeing there.

S. O'BRIEN: That's -- it looks like stormy clouds.

M. O'BRIEN: That's just a cloud I think from somewhere in Florida.

S. O'BRIEN: Kind of ominous.

M. O'BRIEN: But viewers in the path of this storm we're inviting you to send us your images, your video and participate with us become citizen journalists. Stay with us as AMERICAN MORNING special hurricane coverage continues.


S. O'BRIEN: Let's take you live now back to Pensacola, Florida with the assistance of our affiliate WEAR in Pensacola. We've been showing you pictures of this pier all morning. As you can see the water is actually rising and the waves continue and I think even more forcefully to crash over this pier and also at the same time the camera has been shaking a lot more. It's an indication, of course, that the wind speed is picking up, the waves are picking up.

We are told that the folks in Pensacola who are trying to decide whether or not they should head to the shelters well, it's too late now. Don't head to the shelters at all. Stay off the roads and you want to hunker down at home is what the officials, emergency management officials are telling people as of now. We say all of this of course as Hurricane Dennis makes its way toward Pensacola, Florida.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency already in action throughout the Gulf Coast region. They've set up mobile command centers, have plenty of people in place to handle the after math of Hurricane Dennis.

Joining us this morning to talk about those plans, FEMA's Director Michael Brown. He's in the National Hurricane Center in Miami this morning. Nice to see you, Mr. Brown.

MICHAEL BROWN, FEMA DIRECTOR: Good morning, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Give me a sense of what exactly FEMA is doing at this hour.

BROWN: Well, we're putting into place all of our operations to do life saving, life rescue missions as quickly as possible after the storm hits. As you know from last year we still have a lot of people down in Florida ready to respond, so we're in good shape to help people as soon as the storm passes.

S. O'BRIEN: And then you've got this mobile command center. Where exactly is that right now and where do you expect it's going to be when the storm really makes landfall?

BROWN: Well, we have several of those actually in different Air Force bases throughout Florida and Alabama and Mississippi. And what we'll do is we'll move those in as we get more information on the ground about where the worse damage is and then start using those mobile command centers to start actually moving our supplies around, getting the kind of life saving efforts in like meals and water and ice and having the medical teams in place. They kind of act as our coordinators for those efforts.

S. O'BRIEN: Many of the cities that are in the path today, as you well know, in the path 10 months ago as Hurricane Ivan plowed through the region. What was the status of the repairs there? I mean FEMA must have been knee deep in helping people fix up their homes as this one rolls through.

BROWN: Well, we were. In fact we still are. We have over 3,000 people in the Florida panhandle alone that we still have in temporary housing. And I made a promise last year that we would stay in Florida as long as it takes and we'll be here again as long as it takes. I think what's happened is the devastation was so widespread last year that those folks have been having a difficult time finding contractors, finding the materials to rebuild their homes. So my promise to them is we'll continue to make that shelter available for you as long as we need to.

S. O'BRIEN: How are you going to prevent some of the fraud? I'm not giving you any surprises when I tell you that FEMA was widely criticized. Some estimates from Congress $9 million or more misspent given to people who did not need the money who were fraudulently, I guess, filing claims handed out to them. How do you prevent that this time around?

BROWN: Well, first let me put that in perspective because I don't like anybody who's trying to cheat the federal government because that means they could be taking money away from a disaster victim. We have spent over $5 billion in Florida alone helping disaster victims and they found 14 people who tried to cheat us. That's less than one tenth of one tenth of one percent. So it's a pretty darn good track record.

But even though it's a pretty good track record we're going to continue to put things in place that allow us to actually show the damage that occurs in peoples homes. We're going to give people digital -- give the inspectors digital cameras, for example, so they can record the actual damage that they do see.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Michael Brown the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency joining us this morning. And of course they're going to have a busy, busy day. Thanks for talking with us. Appreciate it.

BROWN: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. We've been taking a look at some of our satellite imagery. I want to show you a little bit about the sites that we've been showing you on that picture from WEAR. First of all let's show you the live picture, if we could for just a moment. You see that pier there. I just wanted to show you from some satellite imagery from our key hole technology here to give you a sense of that spit of land on which that camera sits.

If you move over to the satellite imagery, which of course was taken on a nice sunny day that pier is located right where that hand is right in that area there and you can see what we're talking about there. It's just a narrow strip of land. They call them barrier islands and the reason they're barrier islands is they do, in fact, take the brunt of the surf as it comes in.

However, as we've been telling you all day we're talking about a storm surge potentially in Pensacola which could exceed 15 feet and that, of course, would put if well over the sand bars and cause some significant flooding up into Pensacola proper, so that gives you the lay of the land and that's pretty much what you see all along the coast there. Those barrier islands can only do so much for you as we make our way over toward Mobile Bay here. And sure enough if that eye gets in there, gets right into the hear of Mobile Bay as it did in the case of Hurricane Frederick in 1979 can cause all kinds of flooding situations, storm surge in that part of the world.

Let's check in with the National Hurricane Center once again. Ed Rappaport is the deputy director. He's been checking with us pretty much on an hourly basis.

Ed, you've modified your forecast just a little bit. Tell us what is new right now and where the storm is headed?

ED RAPPAPORT, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: With major hurricanes like Hurricane Dennis we often see wobbles a little to the right, a little to the left and overall it doesn't contribute much to the track to see a north, northwest motion. But as we get close to the coast each of these wobbles of course makes a difference and we can't yet tell which town or which county is going to have the worse of the weather. But we have seen a wobble a bit to the right in the last few hours.

What that means though of course is that the Florida panhandle to Mobile area still should be preparing. Hurricane force winds will be arriving later today.

M. O'BRIEN: OK. One thing that's important to point out and we were talking to Rob Marciano just a little while ago about that is when we talk about the arrival of the eye the center of the storm it is a little bit misleading because an awful lot of bad weather can proceed it, right?

RAPPAPORT: That's right. And it's an important factor because tropical storm conditions will proceed the center coming ashore by many hours and those conditions are bad enough that people should really not be out. You start getting tree limbs down. It's difficult to drive. So all preparations need to be completed really now because the weather is going to be going down hill.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. And as you extrapolate out and I want -- we've got to be careful because I always think back to Charley and how we sort of got focused on Tampa, Tampa, Tampa and sure enough it hit Punta Gorda. But if you extrapolate out that rightward shift where would it head toward more likely?

RAPPAPORT: Right. Remember we want everybody to know you can't focus on just where the center track -- the center is forecasted to go on our track forecast for a couple of reasons. One is the track is going to be off a little bit. It will wobble to the right or to the left. The other is this is not a point. We're not forecasting weather for a point. This is a broad storm. Hurricane force winds extend out about 50 miles from the center and the storm surge will be driven inland by those winds.

At this stage we expect hat the greatest impact will occur from west to Panama City over to the Mobile area.

M. O'BRIEN: OK. So you want to leave it at that. You don't want to focus any more on a specific location because, in fact, that would be misleading. As it stands right now no signs that this storm is weakening in any way.

RAPPAPORT: At this point it looks like the intensification we saw earlier has leveled off. The satellite pictures don't look quite as impressive. We'll have another hurricane hunter recognizance aircraft into the storm in about 10 minutes so we'll know more about what's going on inside at that point.

M. O'BRIEN: And you get information from them back pretty much instantaneously, right, once they're inside?

RAPPAPORT: That's right. They do a flight pattern around the storm and about every hour and a half they're in the center. We expect new data momentarily.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much, Ed Rappaport. Boy, if you want a wild ride in an airplane try that sometime, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: No thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: That's something.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, I'll bet it is, but no thank you.

Still to come this morning Hurricane Dennis is headed for the U.S. Gulf Coast. It's a category-4 hurricane which means it is expected to do lots of damage.

Ahead this morning we're going to take you live to Cuba for a look at some of the damage that Dennis left behind. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

We're back in a moment.


ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters. S. O'BRIEN: Hurricane Dennis swept over Cuba as a category 2 storm, but look at what is on the way. You're looking at our affiliate live shot, That's WEAR out of Pensacola, Florida. The camera has been moving even more as you the hours progress here. That's because the wind is picking up and the surf is picking up a little bit as well, but in Cuba at only a category 2, devastation. At least 10 deaths blamed on the hurricane there. Our Havana bureau chief, Lucia Newman tells us what happened.


LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN HAVANA BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): Residents of this Caribbean island are suffering from what they call a "hangover" from Hurricane Dennis. Millions of people here in the capital, Havana, are still without power, without running water or cooking gas. So we're finding that people are looking for coal or a bit of wood so that they can start a fire and cook for their families, for example.

In Cienfuegos in -- which is in the south-central part of the country, which was hardest hit, they are also without power. Hundreds if not thousand of homes were partially or totally destroyed as well as the banana and avocado crops. In general, all -- we are -- I can tell you that there is an extremely accelerated effort to try and normalize the situation, especially in the capital. Emergency teams are cleaning up debris, working round the clock to restore power.

In all, 10 people died in Cuba. Four of them a family trying to get under the bed to protect themselves from the hurricane-force winds and a wall fell down on top of them. Another tragic case, as told on Cuban television, was of a mother who tried to protect her baby from the hurricane-force winds and ended up smothering the child. So it was a tragedy in that sense, but even worse in Haiti. Before the hurricane came to Cuba on its way here, at least, we understand, 20 people were killed in Haiti and I another hundred are still missing.

While in Cuba, the death toll was not as high, the destruction still has been widespread and it's been a nasty start, certainly, through this hurricane season.

Lucia Newman, CNN, Havana.


S. O'BRIEN: We've got much more to come this morning, much more, obviously on Hurricane Dennis and its path.

M. O'BRIEN: Many communities still cleaning up from last year's destruction, we'll talk with one Florida restaurateur who plans to ride out Dennis. There he is. He hopes it's not a carbon copy of Ivan and we'll be with you momentarily, stay with us for more AMERICAN MORNING.


ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters. M. O'BRIEN: Hurricane Dennis is a category 4 storm. We don't know of another category 4 storm that has hit this part of the world, the Gulf Coast, of portions of Florida and Mississippi bracing. You're looking at live pictures, now. This is the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier being battered right now by the high waves there in the Gulf of Mexico. Dennis is still about 140 miles offshore making its way toward that part of the world in as soon as a couple of hours there could be hurricane-force winds in Pensacola, Panama City, perhaps over into Mobile, hard to say for sure, but that whole part of the world is on notice this morning. Lots of evacuations to tell you about, lots of people heading to high ground and we hope everybody who has decided to stay back is safe and sound wherever they may sit.

CNN's Rob Marciano is watching things from the weather center.

MARCIANO: Hi, Miles. Hi, Soledad. Continue to watch the satellite picture Ed Rappaport from the National Hurricane Center kind of enlightened us a little bit. Looking forward to seeing what the aircraft now is going say as they criss-cross this storm.

The eye becoming more defined again. We watched it collapse briefly or at least weaken and then now reintensifying and this is one of those cycles. You can see the left side of the storm, some brighter reds wrapping around that, so out of the eye wall replacement cycle now back into, unfortunately, what is a healthy-looking storm, especially off toward the right where is where we see most of the strong winds and with that also the threat for tornadoes.

We've had a couple of hurricane warnings already this morning. A couple of confirmed tornadoes yesterday across the west coast of Florida in and around the Tampa area, actually, and these two watch box are in effect through the afternoon. And you see this storm getting closer that eye getting a little bit more defined at least on the radarscope, because now it's getting within a good range of the radar to where we can really see the storm, as well. You can also see with the closer view, now. And we saw it really good with Chad Myers and the live shot he had with us just a few minutes ago. As these band comes in, they really have some heavy weather with them. A lot of the reports that we're seeing have winds gusting to 45 to 50 miles an hour now, so we have easily tropical storm-force wind affecting the coastline of the Panhandle of Florida.

Some of the buoy ports -- there's a buoy right out through here that has reported a wind gust of close to 70 miles an hour. Another interesting note, on some of these buoys that I've been checking out, is that the water temperatures have come down since yesterday. That's not really going to help us much because it's just the storm mixing up the ocean a little bit and bringing some of the cooler water to the surface.

You can see the west side of the storm is not as strong, that's typical, but it's a pretty symmetrical storm for all intensive purposes, so even if you live on the west side of the storm, when it comes onshore you're going to be affected and possibly by power outages. Sort of tightened radar, if we can throw the computer to work here and it estimates where you'll see the most widespread power outages and looks like Mobile, Alabama, in through the Panhandle of Florida, obviously where you would expect to see the most damage, where you expect to see it, closest to the track of the storm.

Switching things around, I want to show you this cool animation, we are from the north looking south into the Gulf of Mexico and we're watching this storm roll up. This is a forecast track Eastern time and the National Hurricane Center, somewhere between Pensacola and Mobile, Alabama, at this point, unless it continues to jog to the right and, you know, the Apalachicola area and the Panama City, Destin Beach would be under a -- more of an in effect, but right now, we're not saying that. Category 4 storm, winds 145 miles an hour and it's the 100 to 150 miles swathe of real estate that really we're more concerned about then at one point.

S. O'BRIEN: Hey, Rob, question for you. How come -- you said the water temperature is going down a bit, how come that won't slow the hurricane down? I thought the whole point the warmer it is, it's like fuel and that's what helps really, you know, fuel the hurricane's path.

MARCIANO: Well, I think of a storm -- the buoys that I found where the storm is actually -- the water temperatures have come down a little bit, they haven't come down below 80 degrees that much and the buoys that have seen that are pretty much right here and below. So a little too much -- too little, too late. The buoys that are out close to the rivers that dump out into the Gulf of Mexico are still 84, 83, 84, even 85 degrees Fahrenheit. So, there is still some fuel for the hurricane to kind of reach out and take. So, I just thought it was interesting how powerful the storm can be. I mean, if you think about, you know, just mixing up a kid's swimming pool with your hand, that's pretty much what this thing is doing with the Gulf of Mexico.

S. O'BRIEN: Yeah.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, I got sort of a technical question for you, and bear with me on this one.


M. O'BRIEN: The range of the radar, there are no radars on the buoys out there. How are you able to see this so clearly when it's that far offshore?

MARCIANO: Well, obviously, when it's too far offshore. I wish I could go back. Dave, can you throw up a radar for me with a pretty wide range? Um, when it's to far offshore -- there we go, cool -- when it's too far off shore, like a couple hours ago, it was out to here, this is bout extended range of the radar.

M. O'BRIEN: That's pretty far, though.

MARCIANO: Yeah, that's a couple hundred miles, but you got to also keep in mind that we're shooting from the ground up into the sky, so at some point you get so far out you're missing the top of the cloud, you know what I'm saying? Because you got that angle, so...

M. O'BRIEN: It's at an angle, it's slanting.

MARCIANO: And for that reason also the radars get more accurate as you get closer in as far as the tornado signatures and that sport of thing, so with a couple of reasons, you're shooting up like this and then eventually it just gets out of range. Right now here's the range out of say, between Mobile and Pensacola, 88 miles is what -- so we're under 100 miles as this thing closes in.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Rob thanks. You know you look that the radar and you think why are people who are choosing to stay, who are going to be in the affected areas, staying and that is actually the question we're going to put to our next guest. It's a restaurant owner, his name Jimmy Patronis. He stayed put with Hurricane Ivan last year, he's doing the same thing now that Hurricane Dennis is just hours from landfall. His family owns Captain Anderson's Restaurant in Panama City and that's where we find him this morning.

How's it doing out there right now, Jimmy?


S. O'BRIEN: Ugly. All right, so then why are you staying?


S. O'BRIEN: Can you hear me?

PATRONIS: Yeah, I can hear you.

S. O'BRIEN: OK, so I can see the wind's pick up and you're moving around a bit. Why are you staying? Why not pack up your stuff and go?

PATRONIS: It's -- it's safe where I'm at and it's home. We took all of the necessary precautions to make sure that we're going to be safe and our family is safe.

S. O'BRIEN: I know some of your family members, in fact, have kind of gotten out of town. Oh, how bad did it get back in Hurricane Ivan? And I know your real problems weren't really with Ivan, but actually the tornadoes that came out of that, right?

PATRONIS: Well, the tornadoes that were -- that spun off Ivan did the destruction here in Bay County right through the lagoon area, lots of damage, some fatalities, the tornadoes were what caused the hardest damage here last year.

S. O'BRIEN: How about for your restaurant? We're looking at some pictures that I can see a little tarp on, what was a roof and kind of big holes in the roof frame. What kind of damage did you sustain after Ivan?

PATRONIS: Well, after Ivan we were open in about -- a little over a week's worth of downtime, but so mainly roof damage, loss of windows. The restaurant across the street from us took the full brunt of the tornado where it still closed today, but a lot of lost jobs. The damage -- the damage that the tornado spun off Ivan just had a huge impact on the whole corridor, there.

S. O'BRIEN: OK, so 10 months ago, the restaurant across the street, still not open, takes the full brunt. Why would you choose to try to kind of stick it out when this is going to be a worst storm? I mean, a category 4, Ivan was a category 3.

PATRONIS: Well, we toughed it out last year. We did it again this year. We're at high ground, we took, like I said, the precaution of batten down the hatches, covering up the windows, generators, and bottled water and a lot of the family's here in the Panhandle. If you come to Panama City and you live here -- maybe a little bit, but we pretty much tried to stay put and if we need to, take higher ground.

S. O'BRIEN: You mentioned some of the things you're doing. Give me a better sense of the precautions that you're taking. What have you done?

PATRONIS: You know, mainly, radios, television in order to keep update with the weather forecast. Of course, bottled water, canned goods, car batteries, that power 12 volts in necessary and then generators have been flying out of the stores here locally. It's amazing. I've never seen so many generators purchased this past week and, you know, people just want to hunker down and protect their belongings and may not worry about their life.

S. O'BRIEN: Yeah well, you know, you laugh, but at end of the day that's actually...

PATRONIS: I agree.

S. O'BRIEN: That's what the emergency officials are concerned about. People who want to protect their stuff and put their own lives at risk. Is there a point where you say it is too dangerous? I mean, I guess you're kind of stuck, you can't head toward a shelter.

PATRONIS: No, I mean, where you're at right now, you know, you just need to stay put. And that's exactly what my family is doing. We're staying put in our homes, we're staying off the roads and trying to just stay out of harm's way and giving as much access to letting emergency personnel do whatever they need to do, but I know the shelters here in Bay County, as of a little bit ago, there's, I know, one of -- (INAUDIBLE) it's in excess of a thousand people there in the shelter.

S. O'BRIEN: Yeah, there's a lot of people taking advantage of the shelters. How many of your relatives have decided to stick it out with you and how many have decided to get out of town?

PATRONIS: Well, my wife and I are at my house. My brother and his family down the street, they're at their house and then I've got several other families that -- family members that have taken refuge in their homes. You know, basically, we're at high ground, you know, brick structures, you know, as long as your windows are covered up and you're at high ground you're going to be OK, but you have to take the chance that tornadoes are going to be spun off this. Tornadoes can happen anywhere, whether you're at high ground or not.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, , we should mention, we're starting to lose you a little bit because the satellite's take something hits and so he's going in and out. Jimmy, good luck to you. We got our fingers crossed for you. I hope you get through it just fine.

PATRONIS: Well thank you, and I appreciate you all watching on Bay County for us.

S. O'BRIEN: Hey, no problem at all. We'll continue to watch. No question about that.

PATRONIS: Take care.

M. O'BRIEN: I'd bet -- I'd be willing to guess that as the owner of a restaurant he's got plenty of food stored up.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, he was saying that he was just giving it away, essentially, to employees because lots of stuff is just not going to make it and they packed a lot of the perishables into fridges and they're trying to, you know, hang on to whatever they can at this point.

M. O'BRIEN: I guess. I guess, but anyway, I wish them well.

S. O'BRIEN: Yeah.

M. O'BRIEN: I was looking at the pictures of the restaurant and it's just a wall of glass there in the water, so...

S. O'BRIEN: Well, you know, he was saying that they actually have better windows, because they lost some of the windows in the tornadoes that spun out after Ivan about a year ago and he said they've redone the windows, it's, he thinks, a lot safer, but...

M. O'BRIEN: I wonder if there are hurricane-proof windows. That'd be interesting to see. We'll check back with Jimmy.

S. O'BRIEN: Yep.

M. O'BRIEN: See how that goes.

S. O'BRIEN: Yeah, we should. Yeah, that's the way to find out, right?

M. O'BRIEN: Still to come on the special edition of AMERICAN MORNING that you're watching:

S. O'BRIEN: We're going check in with John Zarrella. He's going to bring us some of the past lessons that have learned about hurricanes and what they might tell us about this one. It's sort of like Storm 101. You don't want to miss it, that's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

M. O'BRIEN: No quiz, though, right?



ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters.


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're looking at some pictures of the surf in Panama City, Florida, it is getting strong there, winds blowing sideways, at least according to some of the folks how've been talking to us, just moments ago. Hurricane Dennis already the fourth-named storm of the season, it's the earliest that we've had this many storms this early. So, are there any lessons to be learned from all this activity or from any of the past disasters? CNN's John Zarrella takes a look.


MAX MAYFIELD, NATIONAL HURRICANE CTR.: People have to realize the power, the absolute brute power of one of these storms. And if you haven't ever experienced it, you haven't ever seen it, there's no way for you understand what you're really dealing with.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The year 1995, when storms were lined up like boxcars across the Atlantic marked the return to a period of more hurricanes and a doubling of major hurricanes. Hurricanes like Mitch in 1998. Its floods and mud slides killed 9,000 people in Central America. And if scientists are right, $30 billion Hurricane Andrew may soon lose its title as the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we will see a $50 billion hurricane in the next 10, 20 years. That's almost without a doubt.

ZARRELLA: The increase in hurricanes, many scientists say, is caused by periodic shifts in the climate. The main culprit is an increase in ocean temperature of a mere half a degree.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A half-degree swing either way doesn't sound like much, but a hurricane is essentially a heat engine and the more energy input the stronger the hurricane has the potential to become.

ZARRELLA: This increased threat, the experts say, is likely to be with us for the next 10 to 40 years.

MAYFIELD: There are a lot of reasons why, I think we, can still have a disaster from the hurricane in the United States.

Reporter: Max Mayfield directs the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

MAYFIELD: But, it could be a bad forecast, it could be a late evacuation order, it just a simple matter of people not having a hurricane plan. ZARRELLA: From a squat, concrete storm-proof building, Mayfield over cease a team of hurricane forecasters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, I doubted if that was on...

ZARRELLA: Every year from June to November, they watch, wait.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought the low clouds were coming in.

ZARRELLA: And perhaps most of all, they worry they will be caught off guard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tropical storm 1 for Belize.

ZARRELLA: Ambushed.

MAYFIELD: That's definitely becoming much better organized.

ZARRELLA: As they were last year when Hurricane Keith, in a mere 12 hours, exploded from a relatively weak hurricane to a brute killer as it slammed into Belize in Central America.

MAYFIELD: If that had happened anywhere along the United States coastline it would have been a disaster. Luckily, it's not a very populated area and if that had happened in the United States we'd likely be testifying before Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a hard time seeing it through this.

ZARRELLA: Forecasters can track a tropical storm across the ocean.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But, I'm going to call this a hurricane.

ZARRELLA: They can tell when it grows into a hurricane.

(on camera): But two of the most critical questions, questions that may mean the difference between saving thousands of lives or losing them, they simply can't answer with confidence. Where exactly is the hurricane going? And how powerful will it be when it gets there?

(voice-over): Last season forecasters watched the drama play out in the Gulf of Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The aircraft now tells us that not only do we have winds that are hurricane strength to the east of the center.

ZARRELLA: Gordon, a sloppy-looking tropical storm was getting its act together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're still expecting that primary impact from the hurricane will be anywhere from Apalachicola, Florida, around southwards to at least Tampa.

ZARRELLA: But, beyond the 400 mile guesstimate there was little certainty. Would Gordon stay weak? A category 1 or 2 storm or would it intensify into a major hurricane? Category 3, 4 or 5? Winds 110 miles an hour or more.

MAYFIELD: Good afternoon, this is the 2:00 p.m. update on the Hurricane Gordon.

Every time we sat down to make a forecast we'd try to make a perfect forecast. We know we can't do that. The atmosphere is very complex. We're doing the best we can with the tools that we have and we are getting better, but we still have those limitations.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Florence is moving to the northeast near 36 miles per hour and...

ZARRELLA: Forecasts are based on data from an array of high technology, whether satellites show hurricanes as they fluctuate and strengthen size. Specially-equipped planes, hurricane hunters, fly into the storm, sending back information on wind speed and barometric pressure. Their data is fed into several mathematical equations that compute the future path and intensity of the storms. The problem is the computer models rarely agree.


ZARRELLA: Leaving forecasters to make their best guest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So the experts here at the National Hurricane Center the first to admit that forecasting is an inexact science.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stand by. Three, two, one.

MAYFIELD: Good evening, this is the 5:00 p.m. update on tropical storm Gordon.

ZARRELLA: Just a few hours before making landfall, Gordon falls apart.

MAYFIELD: It's just been downgraded from a hurricane.

ZARRELLA: But, even false alarms become a dress rehearsal, for the big one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's bound to be a major city impacted and we could be talking about real disaster of epic proportions on our hands.

ZARRELLA: And when it hits the cost will be enormous. The value of coastal property is at least $6.4 trillion, up six fold in the last 20 years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're losing the battle with the development on the coastline. As I fly along the coastline of the Gulf and the Atlantic coast of the United States and see the development right up to, you know, the water's edge there, I just shake my head.

ZARRELLA: Eighty-three million of us live on or near the coast between Maine and Texas. And because so much of the population growth has occurred while big storms were relatively rare, the National Hurricane Center estimates that 85 percent of the people in potential danger have never experienced the full brunt of a big one.

MAYFIELD: These people did not really know what a major hurricane can do and that really concerns me.


S. O'BRIEN: Well, they may know soon. We're coming to you with live reports from Pensacola and also Panama City and Florida in just a few moments. Stay with us, everybody.


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