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AMERICAN MORNING

Weather Deteriorates As Dennis Bears Down On Gulf Coast

Aired July 10, 2005 - 13:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back everybody. And good afternoon. You're watching a special, extended edition of CNN's AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Soledad O'Brien.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Miles O'Brien, reporting today from Atlanta at the CNN Center where we are tracking Hurricane Dennis as it crashes into the Gulf Coast. We also plan to bring you a news briefing any moment now from the governor of Alabama, Bob Riley. And as soon as that happens, we'll bring it to you live.

S. O'BRIEN: As of right now, though, we're moving into the most dangerous phase of this very powerful hurricane. Currently, the eye is lurking just off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. It's expected to reach land within the next hour or so.

Now, Dennis remains a category 4 storm with sustained winds of about 140 miles an hour. It's still moving towards the northwest along almost the same exact path as last year's devastating Hurricane Ivan.

M. O'BRIEN: Now, forecasters predict a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet. That means the water levels of the Gulf of Mexico will be 10 or 15 feet higher than the high tide which is already a foot-and-a-half higher than main sea level. So, the outer areas could experience four to six-foot surges, which means a lot when you are on a barrier island that's right there at sea level.

Florida utilities report 130,000 residents have already lost power. That number will climb surely. And we hope that people have prepared themselves with nonperishable food items and some ice and water and all the things you need to get through all this stuff.

CNN's meteorologist in charge today in the Weather Center is Rob Marciano. And Rob gives us the latest.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, the latest advisory as of 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time is that it has dropped four or five miles an hour. So, that's good news -- 135 mile-an-hour sustained winds now. Still a category 4 storm. We have to drop another five to get it into 3 status. And that is still possible. Although, the latest satellite imagery does show it's still having a well defined eye there. You can see the last couple frames really getting more -- better definition there as it gets closer to Pensacola.

It is 55 miles away from Pensacola proper. That's the center of the eye. The eye wall itself, you know, subtract another 10 miles. And then if you subtract another 10 from that as far as where the beach is, you are looking at about 30 miles from seeing the eye wall start to penetrate here.

As far as the track is concerned, we're so close now it doesn't -- it doesn't really matter that much because it will be coming in right along the border of Alabama and Florida, likely right over Pensacola. Certainly folks just to the east of Pensacola by 30 to 40 to 50 miles will get hammered good with this thing. And then dissipating quite rapidly as it moves over land tonight.

We mentioned this all morning -- what a similar strike point compared to Ivan of just last year. I mean, the towns where this thing may officially come ashore may be 10 or 20 miles apart. Ivan last year was a category 3 storm when it came on board and this year Dennis is a category 4 at least for now.

LIDAR -- light detecting and ranging -- it's a technology that can actually kind of, you know, show you what happened before Ivan came onshore. And obviously this is graphically enhanced, but watch as some of these -- these are buildings by the way and some sand dunes from last year from Orange Beach from before Ivan to after Ivan. Tremendous amount of destruction and beach erosion. So, that's what folks along Panama -- Pensacola Beach will have to deal with, it looks like, tomorrow.

This visible satellite imagery really shows the picture of how wide this storm is. The well defined eye there as it continues its march.

So, we'll have one more shot of the rain coming in. We showed you pictures from Pensacola where John Zarrella and Anderson Cooper is. They're going through multiple squalls now -- and I mean, it is not going to get easier for them. They are going to be in probably for the next six to 10 hours, just some nasty, nasty weather right in the path.

You know, concerned about their safety, certainly. And also, I'm not sure they will be able to stay on the air. It depends on where they have that truck. But Pensacola is pretty much going to see the worst of it. Back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: They have started to see some of the deterioration. And we really should explain to people, this storm, Rob, is just massive. I mean, when we were talking earlier to the folks at the Hurricane Center, they said this is a storm of historic proportions. And they are talking about an area that just 10 months ago was slammed by Hurricane Ivan. So, this is going to be a big one, a scary one, winds of 140 to 145 miles per hour. You know, we have seen our reporters out there.

I mean, give me a sense of -- what are the winds where we are going to see Anderson Cooper and John Zarrella in just a moments -- 45, 50?

MARCIANO: In the next -- within the next hour it will be close to hurricane strength. Let's see what we have for estimations right now. This is, again, our Titan radar. This is what they are seeing right now. About 30-miles-an-hour sustained winds, gusts certainly over 40 and 50 miles an hour at times. And then as this gets a little bit closer, the wind field gets closer, as well. So right in through here is where the hurricane force winds are.

That will shift over the next hour. And they will be in hurricane force winds. They should see wind gusts over 70 miles an hour here by 2:00 -- between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon. And then this is the nastiest part of the storm. They could easily see winds well over 100 miles an hour if it continues on its track.

So, those guys, I'm sure, they've -- just (INAUDIBLE) Zarrella there, having the experience he has -- take it -- taken a pretty good look around to see how protected they are. And hopefully they will be able to bring us pictures throughout the afternoon and throughout the evening.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, I think it was the folks at the Hurricane Center said they have -- this area has not been hit by a category 4 storm. It is going to be a big hit that it's going to take. In fact, let's check in -- thanks Rob -- let's check in with some of our reporters.

And as you have seen them all day, they are stationed all along that Panhandle that's in the storm's potential path. You see there Anderson Cooper. He's there with John Zarrella. Also, CNN Meteorologist Chad Myers, they're in separate locations in Panama City Beach, Florida.

Hey, Anderson, Hey John. Let's start with you guys first. You know, I guess the estimate we heard from Rob maybe 50 miles, not even a fraction -- or just a fraction of what they're going to see there in just an hour or so.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yeah. And when you hear that when you're sitting at home, you hear that speed of winds, you know, it sounds -- oh, you know, it doesn't sound so bad. Let me tell you, it is bad already. And it is only going to get a lot worse.

You have seen a lot of these storms. You probably haven't seen anything like this, though, what we're expecting?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, not since Andrew, of course. And the funny part about it is this is very similar in a way where you don't see a lot of rain. We're not getting a lot of rain. This is a real wind storm. And that's what Andrew was.

We're getting pelted by sand coming off the Escambia Bay. You know, our cameraman can look down and you can see, Anderson, we don't have to worry about storm surge. We have got about 60 feet down to the water. But the wind is the real concern. And that's sand now.

COOPER: Yeah. One of the interesting things you don't realize is everything that becomes airborne. I mean, sand now is one of our biggest problems here right now. We're covered in sand. And, as you know, when it is moving pretty fast, it cuts pretty strong.

I also want to show you something else we're a little bit concerned about. We are underneath a Dairy Queen area. And you can see this overhang by the gas station. It is already starting to buckle a bit. That is obviously something we're watching very closely, because John, as you know, you have seen plenty of these things rip off.

ZARRELLA: Oh, that is just going to come apart. It will start with all the panels underneath that will come loose. And then it will just get lifted right off the foundation.

COOPER: And what we're planning to do is if the location here -- if this does fall, rip off, we're going to move about 600 feet or so inland a bit more to that hotel over there where we have another satellite truck in case ours goes down.

But we think we're going to be here for a good couple of hours, because as Rob Marciano was saying, this storm is -- we're looking at four to six hours here at least.

ZARRELLA: And -- but the bottom is going to fall out on us in a hurry. And when it does and that wind starts howling, it is going to be difficult for us to even stand up out here.

They were talking in Atlanta about us being protected. We're not right now, Anderson. Maybe later.

COOPER: Hey, my mom is watching this.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: You can also see in the trees a lot of movement starting. Of course, we're going to see more of that. Even that lamp post as you can see -- I don't know, Emanuel, if you can get that at all, it is starting to shake. And those are things which you don't think about, but as soon as winds pick up, you start to notice a whole lot of things moving and things just ripping off.

ZARRELLA: And the other piece of information, debris. What they also have to worry about is all the debris that hasn't been cleaned up yet since Ivan, and construction materials, people rebuilding their houses that are left out and strewn around. And that's a real concern for people here, because that stuff all becomes airborne and, you know, adds to the damage and destruction of other buildings. So, it's a serious issue.

COOPER: People here, though, are pretty well prepared. I mean, they have been anticipating the thing. One of the frustrating things about covering one of these storms, you know, is that as it keeps moving and minute by minute it changes direction.

You know, we thought earlier this morning -- we woke up in Panama City. We thought that was where the storm was going to hit. It had obviously moved a little bit to the west, so we drove here to Pensacola. We thought we might have to go to Mobile. So, this storm has been moving a bit.

And just a few miles in either direction can make a huge difference for the people here, because John, as you know, the eye of this storm is smaller than Hurricane Ivan was.

ZARRELLA: Yeah, it's tighter, it's more compact. You're talking more on the order of Charley. But a big Charley, because Charley's hurricane force path of destruction, that swath was about 10 miles. You know, this is going to be much larger field.

COOPER: But a tighter diameter is not good news. That's a stronger storm.

ZARRELLA: The good news, though, from Rob Marciano, of course, was that those winds have come down a little bit, maximum sustained of 135. You know, that's a little bit more comforting.

COOPER: Wait a minute. John Zarrella has been in so many hurricanes, he finds 135-mile-an-hour winds comforting.

ZARRELLA: More comforting than 145.

COOPER: I guess it all becomes relative.

ZARRELLA: More comforting when you are standing next to me.

COOPER: I know. This man is solid. So, that is the scene here in Pensacola. And really minute after minute -- you should keep checking in with us, because this thing is very fluid. This is moving fast. And the situation is changing rapidly here on the ground.

ZARRELLA: We've got people still coming out here, moving around...

COOPER: Yeah, you know, that's...

ZARRELLA: Trying to get a gauge on it, taking pictures, looking at it. You know, it's a novelty. It's Mother Nature at its peak.

COOPER: But as you said, the bottom drops out of this thing awfully fast. And someone like this can suddenly got caught here and unprepared. I mean, they're walking around in their shorts and...

ZARRELLA: Who knows if they have any idea where they are going to go? They're going to run to the hotel for cover, I hope. Because it will drop out quickly. The debris starts going.

COOPER: Let me ask these people. Hey, you guys, come over here. Can you come over here? We're on CNN. What are you doing here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE)

COOPER: What are you doing here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We want to see the weather. We sat inside all last one, so we want to see it this time.

COOPER: Do you live near here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. Right down the road. COOPER: OK. Because you know, it's not a wise thing to be out here right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's why I ain't driving.

ZARRELLA: How did your house make out in Ivan. Did you do OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. We didn't have damage at all. We live in an apartment.

ZARRELLA: So you guys were OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah.

ZARRELLA: You go back there after -- right now, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

COOPER: Well, you go home quickly. It's not a good idea -- take your pictures and leave, all right?

ZARRELLA: They see us out here, they think it's OK.

COOPER: I know. One of those things.

All right. Let's go back to you, Soledad...

S. O'BRIEN: Well, with all due respect, guys, the two of you sending them away as you're standing out there. And we're watching you being blown out there. You have your escape route planned out, I hope.

COOPER: Yes, we do. We have an escape route planned out.

ZARRELLA: We're all set.

COOPER: We're all set. And we really do feel good about this location. The satellite truck is behind a wall. We think it's protected. And we can seek safety very quickly.

But it is -- this is -- at this point, they are telling people, look, do not get out on the roads. There is no reason to be out on the roads at this point. Stay indoors. Don't even try to go to a shelter at this point. Stay where you are.

ZARRELLA: No, it is too late. You just have got to hunker down where you are. If you get out on the road now, and you get a gust of wind, your car flips over and you're done.

COOPER: And, you know, you forget too, the -- like a bare necessity is like gasoline, things like that, I mean, it is just not available anymore. You can't find food. There are no stores open. We stocked up on junk food, because that's all I could at the 7-Eleven yesterday.

But gas -- we're down to half tank. And until these gas stations open which could be 24 hours, 48 hours, there's not going to be gas to be had.

ZARRELLA: And it may be a lot longer than that, because they can't run until there's electricity. And if there's no power, you're going to have to have -- the gas station owners come out with generators to run the pumps.

COOPER: It's going to be a long couple days here in Pensacola, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yeah. I think you're exactly right.

All right, guys. We will continue to check in with you, because you're right -- you're seeing things kind of go downhill pretty fast. And as John warns, the bottom falls out pretty darn fast. Thanks guys.

Let's check in with Chad Myers, see how he's doing. He's in Panama City Beach right now.

Hey Chad, what's your little meter say there?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You know, it is kind of odd, Soledad. The ocean comes and the ocean goes. I'm not kidding you now. This is like what they were talking about with the tsunami back in Malaysia, in those places over there in Indonesia. The water will go far, far out and then -- I'm not kidding you -- the water comes all of the way up, one big surge that I'll keep running from -- one big surge will come all the way right up here to the steps and then it actually it's has been throwing this seaweed at us for about an hour, hour-and- a-half.

And here comes the water. And this was nowhere near this just about an hour ago. We were another two or three feet lower than this just an hour ago. So, we're getting chased farther and farther up the beach. But we knew that would happen here, because our 12:50 high tide is obviously still yet to come. Water is still coming up a bit.

Now the tide in the Gulf of Mexico are not what they are someplace else, like up in New Brunswick, sometimes tides can be 20 or 30 feet. This is going to be about a foot-and-a-half or a two-foot tide today. But the water just keeps coming up and coming down.

Something else I noticed -- and it is hard to get a feel for it from where I am right now because there's a building here in my wind shadow, but the further I walk out to the beach, the less I'm in that wind shadow and the more this wind is picking up.

This wind has now shifted about 30 degrees from where it was this morning. And now as it comes up the beach, we're not going to get this protection from the condos here anymore and the wind is going to come through. The wind is actually going to blow our waves now at us instead of away from us. And I'm afraid that we're going to probably lose another two or three feet, possibly as many as five feet of water line here and probably in the next hour to hour-and-a-half. Back to you. S. O'BRIEN: Chad, OK, so the tide is coming in. So, the water is going up a couple feet any way, right? How much of a difference is that going to make?

MYERS: Well, that's a good question. Because as the wind turns, as the wind is now blowing just -- we call it along shore flow -- as the wind is blowing along the shore, that's not pushing water at us yet. But as the waves come in -- it is hard to find where mean sea level is right now, because the water gets very far down. And then it comes very far up. I'm not kidding. These waves are probably six to eight feet in height. And it takes it far, far out.

Now, look how far the beach is going back here. The beach just keeps going far and far out. That's probably, I don't know, 150 feet. Then all of a sudden, the next big set will come in and send the waves back up here.

And that's how a beach is eroded with these big sets. When the beach gets eroded, you start losing the foundations for where buildings are. And that's where the buildings actually start to fall down, or you start losing the pilings because there is no more support. This island is made of sand. There's no big bedrock under this. All of these things are driven, pilings down in the sand. And that's how they build all of these tens of thousands of condos here along Panama City all the way up to Ft. Walton Beach.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, it is surely being hammered starting right now. All right, Chad, thanks.

Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: The National Hurricane Center, they are watching things from afar down in the Miami area. The director of the Hurricane Center is Max Mayfield here to give us the latest.

Max, we've noticed a significant deterioration just in talking to our reporters along the coastline there over the past, really, 20 minutes.

MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: That's right. And it's going to continue to deteriorate through the afternoon. And it's going to be a very long night for the Panhandle area of Florida and southwest Alabama, and eventually up even into eastern Mississippi before it is over here.

You can see it is taking a little more of a wallop to the north right now. That will get it closer to Navarre Beach and Ft. Walton Beach. If that continues -- you know, the main concern here, especially for loss of life, is near and just to the east of where the center crosses the coast.

So, if it were to continue northward, that would be really for the Pensacola Bay area eastward over Ft. Walton Beach is right here, Destin is right there. That will have a big, big impact. If the wall is back a little more to the left, we're still talking about the Pensacola area. M. O'BRIEN: OK, so those little wobbles really mean a lot right at this point. Very difficult to predict those things. But it's safe to say that in short order hurricane force winds will be felt ashore?

MAYFIELD: That's right. The hurricane force winds are likely in this innermost green area that you see right here. So, another, you know, probably hour-and-a-half to two hours. But they are already getting strong winds as the reporters have been indicating there. And they are going to continue to increase for the next several hours.

M. O'BRIEN: And at this juncture -- when last we checked with Rob Marciano in our weather department, he said there may have been a slight bit of weakening. Are you still seeing that, or is it steady at category 4?

MAYFIELD: No. I don't want to emphasize this at all here, but the winds have come down a little bit. It's borderline category 3, category 4. But it is like getting run over by an 18-wheeler, or a freight train. Neither prospect is good here. There's going to be extensive damage with this hurricane, hopefully no loss of life if people stay hunkered down.

M. O'BRIEN: So, at this point the difference between 145 and 130 means nothing. This is a killer storm, a storm really of historic magnitude.

You know, you guys remember storms the way we remember our kids, practically. You understand and remember the tracks and all of that. How does this one compare in all of the storms you have looked at over the years?

MAYFIELD: Well, actually, the best comparison will likely be, in this area, with Ivan. And this right now is actually stronger than Hurricane Ivan. We'll have probably even a greater impact, because of all of the sand dunes they had up there before Ivan are no longer there. They were washed out by that hurricane. So, that storm surge and the wave action will have a greater impact even farther inland.

We also need to remember that some of those people that died last year in Ivan from the storm surge were not on the barrier islands, they were on the mainland side of the bay. So, if this little jog to the north continues here, we're not just talking about the barrier islands inside, but the mainland side of Apalachee (ph) Bay, folks need to be very, very careful there, be very aware of the storm surge in that location.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Let's listen to those words and not dismiss them. This is a big storm. A killer storm. A record storm. Max Mayfield, thank you for your time. Appreciate it.

MAYFIELD: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: After this short break, we're going to take you to Mary Ester, Florida. It's right in the hurricane's path. We'll check in live with Alina Cho. Also, back to Hurricane 1 and Rick Sanchez. He is on the road with the latest update. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: We just heard from the director of the National Hurricane Center. And he almost didn't want to tell us that this storm is now kind of borderline category 4, category 3 because as he put it whether you are hit by a freight train or an 18-wheel truck doesn't really matter, the end result is the same. So, whether it is 135 miles an hour or 130, which is the break point between category 4 and category 3, the point is that a killer storm is headed ashore as we speak.

And he also indicated that there seems to be a bit -- you know, we have been watching these wobbles -- not too significant, not Charley-type wobbles as we had back in September of last year -- but nevertheless, it is headed a little more to the north, which puts it more in the path toward Ft. Walton Beach.

And right near Ft. Walton Beach is Mary Esther, as a matter of fact. And that is where we find CNN's Alina Cho.

Alina, how are you doing there?

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, quite wet. And it is getting windy out here. The wind gusts are coming at us every couple minutes or so. So, you might see it while I'm on. But I can tell you that just in the past hour we have moved from the second floor balcony of our hotel down to the parking lot to give you a better idea of what it is like out here.

We spoke to a county official within the past 30 minutes or so. She told us that the shelter on Ft. Walton Beach, which is just about three or four miles from here, is now filled to capacity. Her best advice for residents now is to stay put. She says it is simply too late to leave. Stay inside and try to find a safe place to stay dry.

I can tell you that the road behind me, which is Highway 98, parts of Highway 98 are now closed. That is the area around Destin, Florida. Also some of the bridges we are told are closed.

Remember, this is an area that was hit hard by Hurricane Ivan just 10 months ago. And residents are quite familiar with these type of storm situations. Many of the residents seem to be heeding the warnings to leave the area. Certainly a lot of the businesses are boarded up, not a lot of cars on the road as you can see.

Even the hotel manager here where we are staying told me earlier today that we're boarding up. We stayed through Hurricane Ivan 10 months ago. We aren't taking any chances. The front desk is closed. And the general manager tells me that he won't be back until after this storm is over.

Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: So, in a sense, Alina, he's sort of left you there on your own. That's always reassuring when he says, you know, we're going to close up, and here are the keys, and it is all yours.

How concerned are you right now? Do you feel like you're in an OK place, first of all, to tell the story and yet be safe?

CHO: Yes. I do. I mean, you know, right now, of course, the storm has not made landfall now. Right now as you can see, not really windy. The rain is coming down pretty hard. Not sure if you can tell that. But, yes, we did have to sign a waiver, if you can believe it, at the hotel saying, listen, the hotel is not responsible for our safety.

He said -- he gave us, actually, a guest list of everybody who is staying here. And said I'm going home. I live three or four miles from here. I'm going home. I'm going ride out the storm. He feels safe enough to stay home. So that is encouraging. But he has said, listen, we're not going to shut down the water or the electricity. I'm not turning out the lights, you are just going to be on your own for this storm as it moves through.

Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, you can hardly blame him for wanting to, presumably be with his family and at home and watching for his home. That's understandable.

Did you hear that report from Max Mayfield that indicated that the storm might be headed a little more in your direction? I don't know if you were able to hear that. There's a good chance...

CHO: I heard you recap it.

M. O'BRIEN: There's a good chance -- you are going to get kind of the brunt of it, is what it looks like, at this point.

CHO: Yeah. I did hear that, Miles. Not encouraging news, I have to tell you.

Right now it seems as though we are safe. What we will do, of course, in the coming hours is we will probably move back up to the second floor balcony of our hotel where we're shielded a little better versus staying here in the parking lot.

But we did want to give you a sense of what it is like while we still feel safe. Of course, in the coming hours we'll probably move back up to, actually, where my photographer is positioned and do our reports from there later on in the day, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Alina. Please be safe there. And we will check back in with you a little later -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Well, the winds picking up clearly in Pensacola, Florida. Let's take you to Dain Weister. He's at our CNN affiliate WSTV with a look at how it's looking there.

Hey, Dain. What's it like where you are?

DAIN WEISTER, WSTV CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know what? It's a world of difference where we're at here compared to Pensacola Beach, which is that way. We're in an evacuation hotel here about 10 miles north of the barrier islands, because we know this is going to be likely the strongest hurricane to ever hit the Gulf Coast of Florida.

We'll show you some of the conditions up here with the trees bending. Just some of the gusts that are starting in here. And we're starting to get a steady rain. But out on the coast, the major effects of Dennis are starting to punch the shore.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There goes another one.

WEISTER (voice-over): Dennis is taking his first round of punches at Pensacola Beach. The palms fronds are being whipped. Signs, traffic lights are all being swayed with ease. And yes, it is just the start. Hard to believe, but at the same time Kenny McCoy just started to board up his business. It still needs some finishing touches at home. He knows he waited until the last minute.

KENNY MCCOY, PENSACOLA BUSINESS OWNER: Well yes, a little bit. But it is tough to get out of the building. This is about the only way to get in and out.

WEISTER: The way Dennis is ripping, he may not have a business to get in and out of any more.

At this Krispy Kreme, they are willing to sacrifice the trucks for it, hoping this is enough barrier to save the real money maker. People just can't believe this will be the strongest they have seen, even more than last year's Ivan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doesn't sound good. Ivan was pretty nasty.

WEISTER (on camera): Here at Pensacola Beach, seven hours before the eye makes landfall, we're getting pretty hefty wind gusts. Look at this one, the strongest one up to 50 miles an hour.

(voice-over): And the storm surge is on the rise. Boats are already having a tough time of it. Look at this former bridge now a fishing pier. Ivan washed these chunks away and Dennis' surge is expected to be worse. Families here can only pray now that Dennis won't be a menace.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All you can do is get as ready as you can.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WEISTER: But it is not being overly dramatic to say it will be menacing, because with a category 4 hurricane as we heard from the Hurricane Center, we still are expecting extensive damage in this area.

Right here is Interstate 10 you are looking at through Pensacola, even a bridge that goes over Escambia Bay has been shut down in that area because during Ivan it was washed out. That's the latest from here. Back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Dain. Thanks. I think it is fair to say, even at this point that Dennis is going to be a menace. That's for sure if we listen to the folks at the National Hurricane Center, updating us on what is sure to be a very, very hard hit from that hurricane -- a category 4 now. Winds around 140 miles an hour. Just imagine, that's more, maybe 20 miles an hour more than what they were hit with back in Hurricane Ivan just 10 months ago.

Let's check in once again with Hurricane 1. That's the vehicle where our mobile reporter is traveling in. Rick Sanchez is along Highway 98 going west toward Pensacola and Destin.

Rick, you have been through many a hurricane, being a Floridian. How many do you think you have reported on?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, I can't even count how many. But I know one thing, Soledad, boy, this thing is really picking up right now. We're just getting hit by quite a gust. We pulled over on the side of the road off of Highway 98. And if there's one storm that this is starting to possibly become more comparable to, it would be Hurricane Andrew which was really the granddaddy of hurricanes when it comes to damage assessments in and of themselves.

And we pulled over in this particular spot. I wanted to show you something, because you see some of those big pine trees behind me right there. Also, Sue (ph), if you could pan just a little bit to the left and show those on that side, as well. And you will get a sense of what happened during Hurricane Andrew.

Down in South Bay, Florida, there were pine trees just like these all near the roads. After Hurricane Andrew left, all of those looked like little sticks that had been literally cut right at the base. That's how strong the winds in a category 4 hurricane can become. So, it is something that we're obviously going to be watching here.

There's another thing that comes into play as we get these winds now that are coming, seemingly Soledad, from east to west, because as the storm gets closer, the winds obviously shift. The most precarious place to be is where we are, the northwest quadrant of the hurricane. That's where you get a lot of your tornadic activity. They will obviously come in and do a lot of damage. Those winds are clocked in excess by at least another half, sometimes double what you get on the mainland.

So, what we'll attempt to do now, Sue, if we can -- let's get back on the road and try and head back toward that road in Destin where there are some...

S. O'BRIEN: I think we lost Rick Sanchez there.

And what you are hearing was Rick telling us his path. He's been traveling on Highway 98. He's heading west, essentially into what is sure to be the hardest hit area, somewhere between Panama City Beach and Pensacola. As he mentioned, he's really the first to say the word Hurricane Andrew -- that absolutely devastating storm.

It may be a good time to check in once again with Rob Marciano, if we can get him up. I would be curious to know meteorologically -- easy for me to say - speaking, do you see, Rob, any kind of ties in with Andrew more than -- of course, Ivan is the hurricane that we really have been talking about. When you talk about devastating damage, though, Andrew is the one people think about.

MARCIANO: Well, this one is tight like Andrew was tight. As far as -- comparing it to Ivan, Ivan was a little bit -- had a little bit more wider radius of damaging winds.

Hurricane Andrew was a 4 that actually was later bumped up to a 5. So, Rick, I believe was down in Miami when that came through. So, as far as him being there and seeing the effects of it, he certainly could speak more to it. I can tell you from a meteorological sense what it looked like on the radar and as far as data is concerned.

But there are a couple other storms that are similar to this. As far as folks who live in this area, their granddaddy is Camille, which came up through this area. And that was a category 5. So, that one did extensive damage back in 1969 as well.

But what we should probably know now instead of -- let's get away from history now and let's talk about present and future. Because I think what Max Mayfield pointed out earlier is something that we're watching carefully here. And that is that bit of a northward jog. And you see it pretty vividly here in the radar.

The last -- probably the half an hour to 45 minutes, we started to see this bit of a turn. And that would -- we've already pretty much -- Mobile Bay -- folks in Mobile are breathing a bit of a sigh of relief unless it jogs really off to the west, because as long as this thing stays east of Mobile Bay, the water stays put.

I mean, this is an area that could easily flood with category 2 storm, but as long as they have the storm is on this side of the bay, the winds blow that water out. So, they are starting to see a sigh of relief.

But the folks in Pensacola, which this is heading towards, will breathe a sigh of relief if it continues northward. Of course, that doesn't bode well for people in Destin and eastward, even towards Panama City.

So for -- one person's good is another person's misery in this particular case. I think Max also said it well is that it is just not a good situation, at all.

And even if we downgrade it to a category 3 storm -- we call the major hurricanes category 3, 4 and 5, because they do major damage. And this one is likely to do that. And the only optimistic thing that I keep bringing up, Miles, is that it is a tight storm. And it should only be a 20 to 30, maybe 40-mile radius of seeing severe damage out of this, as opposed to seeing maybe a 100 mile radius. M. O'BRIEN: And I guess, when you start comparing it to Andrew, one thing you have to recall, of course, is that Hurricane Andrew, when it hit south Florida, hit this huge population center. And that's why -- I don't know, $23 billion damage in damage, some very, very high numbers, way above the others as far as the damage it caused. Such widespread damage in the area south of Miami and Homestead. Not to minimize the damage here, because there are fewer people living here, but the overall impact economically is different.

Now, let's get back down to the ground. First, we're going to take a break. But when we come back, we're going to check in with an Anderson Cooper and John Zarrella. They got the animometer there. And things are going south, so to speak. So, we'll check in with them after we take a brief break and continue our coverage of Hurricane Dennis, a historic storm. And you are watching it unfold right here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Hurricane Dennis is now within 50 miles of the shoreline and pretty much making its way up toward Escambia Bay, Pensacola area. And that is an area that if you are not in a place you want to be, it is probably too late. So, do your best to make yourself safe, seek some shelter, because a killer storm is on the way.

We have reporters all over the coastline bringing you the story as it happens. This is still a category 4 storm, maybe borderline category 3, but don't really put too much into that because we're talking 130 to 135-mile-an-hour winds which is substantial -- and for the Gulf Coast of Florida, unprecedented.

Joining us now from Pensacola, Anderson Cooper and John Zarrella. They got the animometer going. How fast is the wind blowing guys?

COOPER: Yeah, Miles. We've been seeing, the winds have really picked up here the last 10 minutes or so. What are you seeing, John?

ZARRELLA: It's in the 50's consistently, low 60's. We had 67 at one point. But it is really swirling. It is hard to get a good fix.

You know, really, when you are doing wind readings, you are up at a higher elevation about 30 feet.

COOPER: It is very unpleasant here at this point. I mean, there is sand just whipping across, being picked up by this wind. A lot of sand just cutting through. It really gets in your eyes. It is very tough out here right now.

And Miles, as you said just a short time ago, no one should be out on the roads at this point. If you are thinking about leaving your house at this point, do not. Authorities are saying stay where you are. Do not try to seek higher ground. Do not try to go to shelters at this point. Stay where you are. Because, really, minute by minute these winds are picking up very, very strong.

ZARRELLA: High 50s. Sustained in the high 50's. COOPER: We're seeing sustained winds now in the high 50's. Which, I can tell you, about 10 minutes ago it was maybe in the 30's, sustained winds. And we have a gust, as John said, in the high 60's. So, this thing is coming. It is coming hard. And it is coming fast. We're seeing a lot of white caps.

I also want to show you from our other camera, the scene, the top of this gas station, the overhang on the gas station is already starting to buckle off. And that is a very ominous sign, because as John Zarrella well knows, these things rip off very quickly.

ZARRELLA: Yeah, during Charlie, all over Punta Gorda, as you know -- you were there with me -- we saw a lot of these gas station overhangs just rip -- blow over on their side, blown down the street. I mean, that becomes very dangerous, airborne objects.

COOPER: And a second ago, Emanuel was showing you the scene in the bay. A lot of white caps already on the water, that you never like to see on an inland bay. The water is moving very fast. And the storm -- the last I heard was 18 miles an hour, which is a very fast moving storm.

ZARRELLA: Yeah, it really is. As it gets to higher latitudes, they start moving faster. That's about the only good piece of news.

You know, I really kind of compare this one to Hugo back in '89.

COOPER: How so?

ZARRELLA: Well, wind speed 135, barometric pressures, I think are pretty similar. That was a cat 4, borderline cat 4, right at 135. And everybody knows the destruction it caused in Charleston. Very similar to that one.

COOPER: We should also point out that we are -- behind us is the I-10 Highway. I'm not sure -- you might not be able to see it with all this wind and rain -- that's the I-10 Highway, which -- there is a famous photograph of it being destroyed during Hurricane Ivan, which also hit this area. There was a vehicle hanging off.

And you can tell the I-10 is so close to the water here, it is only about 10 feet, it looks like, from the highway down into the water. We are expecting storm surges of maybe 15 feet, we've heard. So, that highway could very well go under.

What do you think?

ZARRELLA: The same. It is still consistently in the 50's now. You just can't turn your head this way. That sand is really pelting us over there.

COOPER: There is not so much rain here at this point right now. We've had a little bit of a let up. But it is interesting, that as those bands -- those outer bands of the storm approach, you will get wind and rain, you'll get a real pick up. And then it kind of -- there's a lull. And you almost feel like it has kind of gone away. ZARRELLA: But you know, you get these storms that are this intense and they really become like Charley was, it's a wind storm, like Andrew was, it's a wind storm.

And you know, the amount of rain that falls in a given area is directly related to how fast the storm is moving. Slower the movement, the more rain it's going to dump. They move like this, and you know, you hear the term wet storm, dry storms. It's really related to how fast they're moving.

But right now, this is a wind storm, we're getting.

COOPER: And this storm, we had earlier been in Panama City. That's where we thought the storm was really going to hit. That's where Chad Myers is right now. But this thing has moved westward. We came to Pensacola. We found this location. And we're going try to stay here as long as possible.

But I'm very concerned about how fast this storm is coming in. And it feels like it is going to be a strong one.

ZARRELLA: It's -- as you know, I mean, we have been here, what an hour-and-a-half, two hours right here, and it is getting worse. And what we were saying, when the bottom starts to fall out on this, it's going to happen pretty quickly. And it is happening pretty quickly.

COOPER: Now the I-10, I mean, how far off the water is that? To me it looks like 10 feet, or something.

ZARRELLA: Oh, yeah. It's no more than that. And, you know, I can recall crossing that I-10 bridge as a very young reporter many years ago during Hurricane Frederick in '79 that came up Mobile Bay. And we didn't realize it that night height of the storm, the waves were crashing against the side of the bridge, the I-10 bridge going into Mobile.

And, you know, you were there last year. And that whole area is going to be so susceptible to storm surge coming up Mobile Bay. This could very easily be underwater in the next few hours.

COOPER: And I mean, the other concern is with all of these trees, the ground hasn't recovered from the last hurricane.

ZARRELLA: And they had a lot of rain here earlier in the year already. So, there is a saturation point that we're going to reach.

But, yeah, these trees are all going start snapping pretty soon. It is not going to take a whole heck of a lot more. I'm going to try to get a wind reading.

COOPER: Yeah. You can see, on some of the trees -- I mean they have already -- it looks like they have snapped. Maybe that's from -- last year, yeah. You can see those trees are already snapped. And they are moving pretty fast already.

It's going to be a big storm. There's no doubt about it. I mean, you can feel in the air, you can feel it minute after minute really picking up here.

Right now we're in another big gust here. And you know, the rain, it's really completely horizontal at this point. It is just going straight across, which is such an odd sensation. And, of course, it is carrying with it sand and other debris. It is getting very unpleasant here very quickly. And we're going try to stay at this location as long as we can. I'm not sure how long we're going to be able to, frankly with these winds picking up as they are...

M. O'BRIEN: Anderson.

COOPER: John is trying to get some more readings.

M. O'BRIEN: The names of the storms that you and Rob have been invoking from Frederick to Hugo to Andrew to Camille, puts this in category with truly the epic storms of our century. And you are out there.

I remember in Hurricane Hugo, it snapped live oaks, and brought down live oaks, some of the hardiest trees there are in South Carolina and Charleston area.

You guys, OK there, first of all? Because if it can take out a live oak, you are in a bad place maybe.

COOPER: I hear what you are saying. But Miles is pointing out that these storms can take out live trees and we're in a good location. We should point out, we're on an elevated bluff. We're high off the water. And there are not really any trees behind us. That's the big concern for -- you don't want trees behind you. What you are seeing as far down from where we are a good 100 feet or so.

ZARRELLA: Yeah. We're OK up here with the location, other than from the sand hitting us. But, yeah -- it's not like -- with the way the wind is blowing any debris that comes over is going to be going that, away from us. And there's nothing on this side of us but ocean right now. We don't have to worry at this elevation for storm surge.

COOPER: But that, of course, for home owners is a huge concern. I was talking to a lady a little bit earlier. A tree landed in her house during Hurricane Ivan. Her house hasn't been rebuilt at this point.

And you hear stories -- you know, so many stories like that -- people still rebuilding from the last hurricane. And you know, it looks like there may be a lot of rebuilding to do here.

But people are prepared. People have been prepared. And they have been taking this thing seriously from the get-go.

ZARRELLA: Yeah. From the beginning, when we got into town here in Pensacola yesterday morning and stopped at one of the home improvement stores loaded with people getting gas cans, some people getting plywood and many people had already left town. So, yeah, they know what to expect here -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: You know, it is interesting, though. First of all, it has got to be so demoralizing for people there to have to go through this again less than a year later. But aside from the people you interviewed last time we talked to you, who were just curious and came out and took a peek, I haven't seen a soul around you. And that's kind of unusual. A lot of times what you see are a lot of curiosity seekers, people who are just kind of wanting to see the waves and so forth. It looks like people are really taking heed. And that's good news.

COOPER: Yeah, you know, I think it is beyond the point of (AUDIO GAP) -- people have gone home. The people who were here a little bit earlier, they have left, as well.

It is really very unpleasant out here right now. There is one vehicle that pulled up. And they are sort of amateur storm chasers who are out here and plan to stay out here as long as they can. But I'm not sure how long they are even going to last.

Yeah, you don't see anyone on the roads. We're by a road. There's no one driving down this street. And that is a very good thing indeed, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Hopefully there are no young John Zarrella types trying to get across Interstate 10 there and being -- subjecting themselves to storm surge on this one.

Gentleman, please be safe. Keep us posted. We will check back in with you shortly.

Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, you can see the winds clearly picking up there in Pensacola. Anderson and John talking about wind speeds of consistently 50 miles an hour plus. And of course we're expecting much worse from Hurricane Dennis as this storm is sure to become a storm of historic proportions. And it is whipping the Gulf coast.

Let's get right to CNN's David Mattingly. He joins us by phone. He's at the Escambia County Command Center. Davis, give me a sense of how the folks there feel things are going so far.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well Soledad, everyone is watching this storm. They were hoping to catch a break, and so far this storm is just not giving it to them. It looks like it's going to come right here. No matter if it jogs a little to the left, a little to the right, this area here is going to get it. And they are going to get it bad.

I have been with Sheriff Ron McNesby (ph) for the past few hours. And he has just made a very important decision. We have just hit a very critical threshold when it comes to public safety in this area. He just decided to pull his deputies in off the street, because of the deteriorating conditions. He felt it was no longer safe for them to be out there. So, they are all going to prearranged locations around the county so they can respond once this storm goes through.

He says this is a very difficult decision for him to make, because they will continue to get 911 calls throughout the storm. They're expecting hundreds of them. In fact when Ivan came through, they got more than 900 911 calls in this county. Some people calling in during the middle of that storm, panicking, saying they were in trouble, they needed rescue. And the sheriff says they just weren't able to send people out to help them. And they're afraid they might get into that situation again.

Of course, they hope not. They have noticed that people have been heeding the evacuations warnings like they never have before, so they hope that they will get through this storm without any loss of life this time.

But, again, it is going to be a very dangerous storm. And they are sitting here in the command center watching each little tick of the path of the storm as it continues to move northward. They were hoping that it would move off to the east. If that was the case, then they would be spared some of the hard rain and hard winds, but now it looks like it will come right through the middle of their backyard, including Pensacola and Pensacola Beach.

And there are a couple of things that the sheriff showed me earlier. One was that there was the large piles of debris that are still all over the place in this county because of what Hurricane Ivan did. They haven't been able to clean up. They haven't been able to repair all of the buildings.

So as wind comes in, there is going to be that huge possibility that all of this debris could become airborne. There could be a lot of projectiles in the air that they didn't have last time.

They are also talking about debris clogging the waterways that are inland. This county is flanked on both sides by a river. If those creeks and waterways become clogged with debris, they're going to have much worse flooding than they probably should from this storm.

So again, everything that they look at does not come back looking good at this point. They are just hoping right now that somehow they catch a break, the one they haven't been able too see yet, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yeah. And I don't know that that's going to be happening. CNN's Dave Mattingly joining us by phone, because of course, the debris is causing the flooding potentially down the road.

Also, that debris -- big concerns there. They become, essentially, little projectile -- or not so little -- projectile missiles. And this is the debris that's often from construction sites, because of course, it was Ivan 10 months ago that roared through back then.

M. O'BRIEN: I remember years ago, Jeff Flock, one of our colleagues who has moved on to other places was doing a live shot here. And behind him, a piece of sheet metal just kind of...

S. O'BRIEN: I remember that.

M. O'BRIEN: And it scared the heck out of him and all of us. I think we all learned some lessons about where we want to be in these situations, and took those lessons to heart.

Still to come on the program, we check in on the thousands of people who have checked into shelters to escape Hurricane Dennis.

S. O'BRIEN: Also we'll take you back to the beach where the winds and the waves keep getting stronger. You want to stay with us on this extended edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Dennis is bearing down. And our correspondents all along the shore are bearing with some very, very harsh conditions. And we are augmented by some help for our affiliates, which we really appreciate. One of the places that is a focus of attention today -- we talked to Chad Myers from there quite a bit -- is Panama City, Florida.

Emily Pandalides of our affiliate WJBF is there. She's on the beach. And it's not a very pretty sight, is it Emily?

EMILY PANDALIDES, WJBS CORRESPONDENT: It's really not. It doesn't feel good Miles.

You can obviously see the winds here really tremendous, really pushing us around. For a while, we actually had to leave and go inside because we didn't think we could stand it.

So, you probably see a lot of this rain. It is not actually a lot of rain. The interesting thing is it's the wind that's pushing this. And it is really, actually a painful rain. It is not hail and it's a heavy rain. It's just this wind that is so tremendously strong that it sort of forcing it on us.

It's coming at us at a sideways pace. And you can also -- I don't know if you can see these waves, but they are really crashing on to the shore. We are just about a mile away from the city pier. And you can really see how high these waves. They are crashing over the pier.

So, really some bad conditions in Panama City, Florida. This is certainly the worst that we have seen it all day. You can see, I'm having a hard time bracing myself and standing.

But I do have good news. The good news is that everybody here in Panama City has evacuated. This road right here is completely evacuated. We don't see any cars. We don't see any people.

And because there is also a curfew in place for much of the counties here in Panama City, it does seem like people are really heeding those curfews. Nobody out on the streets. And it really is some bad weather here.

So, good news is nobody is out. And people certainly taking that advice.

M. O'BRIEN: That's good. We're glad to hear that.

Emily Pandelides, thank you very much for your report from Panama City. And stay safe there as well -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, CNN's special coverage of Hurricane Dennis continues. Just ahead, we're going to be checking in with the National Hurricane Center. We will also be talking with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials about just how they are preparing for the storm. A short break first. We're back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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