When Andy Barton lived in Washington state, his fear was earthquakes, opening up the ground under his feet and toppling buildings onto his head. Now, he is experiencing his first hurricane season on the north Florida coast and learning firsthand how the uncertainties of a big, violent storm close by in the Atlantic can play havoc with his nerves.
"I'm hoping to have an easy initiation," said Barton, deputy city manager since May of this scenic beach community on Amelia Island 30 miles north of Jacksonville and near the Georgia line. "That is, no hurricane. It's very intimidating, knowing it's out there. You have a lot of lead time, which is great, but you have a lot of time to worry, too."
It was inevitable that this hurricane, the second to threaten the United States in a week, would be dubbed "Dennis the Menace." So far, it is amply living up to its name, keeping forecasters guessing about where and when it might make landfall--and keeping residents from central Florida to the Carolinas on edge as they watched it slowly strengthen and advance today.
Since Friday, Dennis has intensified from a minimal Category 1 hurricane, with 80-mph winds, to a Category 2, with 105-mph winds. But what is causing forecasters and residents the greatest consternation is the possibility that it could grow into a deadly Category 3 sometime Sunday, packing winds of 111 to 130 mph, and capable of causing great destruction along the coast.
"Right now, we are pretty certain it will become a Category 3," said Jeremy Pennington, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
"As it moves over the Gulf Stream, there is warmer water there than where it has been the past couple of days, and warm water is its energy source."
All forecasters could say for now about its destination is that it could strike somewhere in the Carolinas on Tuesday. But even that was unclear, depending on how fast it moves. Although Dennis might simply skirt the coast, then turn mercifully out to sea, that was looking more and more unlikely, Pennington said.
As a Category 1 storm, the hurricane battered the northern Bahamas early today, tearing up trees and telephones poles, ripping small boats from their moorings and breaking down buildings under construction, according to the Associated Press. Although the information was sketchy, with many people still remaining in shelters, there have been no reports of deaths, Pennington said.
By late tonight, Dennis was about 390 miles south of Wilmington, N.C., churning at a slow 7-mph pace. On forecast maps, it seemed perilously near Florida, but Pennington said it will likely only cruise parallel to the Florida coast for the next couple of days, drawing as close as 100 miles, and possibly sending tropical storm-force winds of 39 to 74 mph to some north Florida beaches.
At 11 p.m., a hurricane watch from Sebastian Inlet near Fort Pierce to Fernandina Beach was canceled and replaced with a tropical storm warning from Sebastian Inlet to Flagler Beach, north of Daytona Beach.
The hurricane watch zone was moved sharply north to between Savannah, Ga., and Surf City, N.C., north of Wilmington. The hurricane center said a portion of the watch area is likely to get a tropical storm or hurricane warning Sunday morning.
Today's watch seemed to have little effect on vacationers drawn to this 13-mile barrier island, with its quaint Victorian-style homes and old-fashioned downtown full of cafes and antique shops. Charles Logan of Athens, Ga., was not worried. Big puffy clouds seemed to pile up on the horizon, as the sailboats in the marina bobbed in the rising winds.
"I pay attention. I go with the experts," said Logan, who is retired, as he sat on a bench reading a newspaper outside the Mariner Restaurant, housed in an 1882 red-brick building. "If it comes, all you can do is grab a tree."
But the pressures of the waiting game were very real farther up the coast, in perhaps the more vulnerable spot of Sullivan's Island, S.C., just outside Charleston. There, Chris Thomas, a disaster relief worker with the American Red Cross, was hoping there would be no need to open the 95 shelters on standby in South Carolina.
"There's a level of frustration that goes with hurricanes because you don't have road maps and you don't know where they're going to go," Thomas said. "But everybody knows Dennis is kind of creeping up the coast."