Hurricane Dennis became Tropical Depression Dennis today after spiraling onto the Florida Panhandle on Sunday, shredding signs and toppling trees in coastal communities still recovering from an onslaught of three tropical storms in the past month and a monster hurricane less than a year ago.
Rain totals as of Monday morning ranged from 3 and 4 inches in parts of Florida to 8 and 9 inches across Georgia, according to the National Weather Service.
Two deaths were reported in the storm's wake, including a man killed early Monday by a 40-inch diameter tree that fell on his bedroom in Decatur, Ga., and another electrocuted in Fort Lauderdale after stepping on a fallen power line. More than 20 people died in connection with Dennis in the Caribbean.
Insurance industry estimates were that Dennis caused between $1 billion and $2.5 billion in insured damage. Some 680,000 customers in four states were without power Monday at midday, with many likely to be powerless for several weeks.
The National Weather Service said that Dennis, as a Tropical Depression, is likely to produce winds of 30 mph and additional rain accumulations of 3 to 6 inches mainly over the lower Ohio River valley Monday with some downpours of up to 10 inches.
It issued flash flood warnings for portions of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee and flash food watches for parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.
The Washington region could get some moisture and rain by late Tuesday and early Wednesday as part of Dennis' leftovers.
The last-minute weakening of a storm that earlier Sunday had carried 145 mph winds was a relief to many in the region. But Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield compared the drop-off to "the difference between getting hit by a semi-truck or a freight train."
Dennis was compared with Ivan, another Category 3 hurricane that hit just up the coast in September in Gulf Shores, Ala. Ivan killed 52 people in the United States while causing $10 billion in insured damage.
But Dennis established its own identity. It arrived remarkably early, stirring the sand between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach as the first major hurricane to hit the United States in July in 150 years of recorded history and only the seventh Category 3 or stronger hurricane to form in that period. It also moved quicker than Ivan, smashing the coastline with a fast, concentrated jab from its more compact core, then moving on.
"This one was very, very intense all at once," said restaurateur Nick Zangari, whose penchant for serving meatball sandwiches at New York Nick's right up to the moment of hurricane impact has made him a celebrity in Pensacola. "You had things flying by like 'The Wizard of Oz' movie."
By 11 p.m. Eastern time Sunday, Dennis had been downgraded to a tropical storm with 50-mph winds, and was 25 miles southeast of Demopolis, Ala. The National Hurricane Center said it would meander through Alabama, Tennessee and southern Illinois before curling into Ohio and dissipating at the end of the week.
When evening approached, National Guard convoys rolled into the Panhandle as Dennis moved inland, dropping heavy rain on lower Alabama.
Power outages were reported throughout the region, but again Dennis seemed to inflict less woe than Ivan.
"It doesn't appear that this storm has created as much widespread destruction as Ivan did, at least from a power-outage standpoint," said John Hutchinson, spokesman for Gulf Power Co. "After Ivan, we did not have one light bulb burning in Santa Rosa or Escambia counties, and right now we have power in both of those places."
Dennis spread hurricane-force winds over 40 miles of coastline dotted with tiny beach communities, simultaneously beloved as summer havens, and affectionately dubbed the "Redneck Riviera" by some of its frequent visitors. But the width of the storm's destructive power was much greater, with damaging winds of tropical-storm force, and accompanying storm surges extending more than 100 miles from its core.
Gen. Douglas Burnett of the Florida National Guard said the return of units from Iraq gave him far greater troop numbers than the Guard had during last year's four-hurricane season; relief efforts in Florida were then hampered because of the mass call-up of National Guard units for overseas duties. Four battalions were on standby or on their way to the Panhandle late Sunday, along with a contingent of heavy Chinook helicopters.
The relief effort is sure to be complicated by the delicate geography of the area; much of the most vulnerable communities is connected to the mainland only by small bridges susceptible to the punishing 15-foot storm surge kicked up by Dennis. Dive teams were dispatched to check whether roughed-up bridges would hold.
The trajectory of the storm kept it away from the largest population centers. Early Sunday, Dennis appeared headed directly for Mobile Bay, a potentially dangerous landfall point that could have submerged much of Mobile's historic downtown. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley ordered a mass evacuation of Mobile, the most extensive in state history, and residents who in past years had seemed blase about hurricane threats responded en masse.
More than 1.5 million people live in areas throughout the region affected by evacuation orders, and traffic counts led officials to believe that huge numbers heeded the warning and left. By Sunday afternoon, for instance, 98 percent of the hotel rooms in Alabama were filled as the outer edges of Dennis slapped Mobile with heavy wind and rain. At the eastern entrance to town, several dozen people sought the most ingenious of shelters: the living quarters inside the heavy metal hull of the USS Alabama, a retired World War II battleship that has become one of the state's most popular tourist attractions.
Others took more traditional coping measures, opting for the comforts of a storm-season standby: the hurricane party. At the VFW Hall on Hollinger's Island near Mobile, Commander Harry Smith was not planning to open, but his regulars insisted.
As rain pelted the little hall, C.D. Hauser, a retired Navy man, downed a Bloody Mary and declared, "I'm going back to Arkansas" as the jukebox blared lyrics that gave the place the feel of a parallel reality: "I can see clearly now, the rain is gone."
To be sure, there was much to make residents wonder if what was happening to them was real. The area was drenched just six days earlier by a strong tropical storm, Cindy, after two previous tropical storms had also whisked through the area.
Escambia County Administrator George Touart said all of the season's named storms had slapped his county. "We're beginning to wonder what we've done wrong," he said.
Cassandra Trial, 46, does not plan to stick around to find out. She moved to Pensacola from Los Angeles in March so that she could be closer to her daughter. Since then, it seems she has done little more than watch rain and wind.
"This is too much for me," said Trial, who staked a spot among 300 other people in an elementary school-turned-shelter on Sunday. "I'm going back to California and deal with the earthquakes. Roofs blowing off and all this -- no, I can't have it."
All around are signs of last year's unprecedented clumps of hurricanes: hundreds of broken roofs covered by blue tarps and billboards with great chunks bitten out of their middles by the wind.
"Before we could get our heads all the way back up above the water, we're being pushed down again," said Susan Walden, a writer in Pensacola.
But the hardy types are evident here, too, the ones who refused to leave and within minutes of facing down Dennis were grasping from some semblance of normal. Thi Nhuang Bina was open for business less than three hours after Dennis passed, selling sodas and bottled water from her convenience store on W Street in Pensacola.
Outside, Laderick Ward, 26, lined up with a dozen others, hoping there would still be a cold beer in the refrigerator when he got inside to calm his nerves.
"It was very strong," Ward said of Dennis, "but Ivan took away everything that was weak. . . . Pretty soon, there won't be anything left to tear up."
Roig-Franzia reported from Mobile. Fred Barbash reported from Washington. Staff writer Hamil R. Harris in Cape Canaveral contributed to this report.