Hurricane Dennis strengthened as it churned toward northwest Florida on Saturday, leaving at least 32 people dead in Haiti and Cuba and prompting mass evacuations and bitter frustration among residents of Panhandle communities who were thrashed by Hurricane Ivan just 10 months ago.
Packing 135-mph winds and lashing rains, Dennis rapidly regained Category 4 status early Sunday. Dennis had been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane after it lost steam over Cuba. But emergency management officials warned that the growing menace could down power lines, chew up homes and businesses, and trigger damaging floods as it comes ashore Sunday somewhere between Pensacola and Mobile, Ala.
More than 1 million people, from Florida's northwestern Panhandle to Louisiana, were under evacuation orders. Residential and business power outages were reported in the southern tip of Florida, including the entire city of Key West. Several tornadoes touched down in the Tampa Bay area, causing minor damage.
"The state is going to get hit," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush warned. "We're going to have a significant amount of rain and lots of wind. This is serious. This is a very dangerous storm."
Residents of the Pensacola area were especially on edge. At least 100,000 of the area's 400,000 residents evacuated rather than stay and test the storm's fury, local officials said. Memories of Ivan are still fresh, and loose debris and banged-up homes and businesses from that September storm can be seen all over the area.
"I'd say the town is scared to death," said Chuck Emling, 52, a health club owner who loaded sandbags Saturday that he planned to place around his business and home. "It's just my estimate, but I'd say two-thirds of the town is gone. I don't know one person that stayed in their houses last time who is going to now. Ivan was bad."
Ivan, which landed here Sept. 16, contributed to 52 deaths in the United States and 70 in the Caribbean and caused as much as $10 billion of insured damage.
Ivan left 30,000 people homeless throughout the Pensacola area, and about a third of them still are unable to return to their homes -- including 5,000 who continue to live in temporary trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said George Touart, the Escambia County administrator. There simply have not been enough contractors and building materials to go around, Touart and other officials said.
Now, with Dennis approaching, "there's a tremendous amount of frustration," Touart said. "It's very, very unbelievable. The same exact storm path, the same type of storm surge being anticipated. It's like deja vu. Here we go again with another storm."
Viewed overhead from an airplane window, the face of Pensacola is pockmarked with blue blemishes -- the tarps that still cover the roofs of many structures that were damaged when Ivan swept through. There are signs everywhere that the city is still struggling to recover from that disaster, even as it prepares for the next one.
In Pensacola Beach, a resort community on a nearby barrier island, green tiles are missing from the roof of the Holiday Inn Express hotel, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence. Next door at the Dunes Hotel, wide swaths of the concrete facade appear to have been torn away like old wallpaper.
At St. Joseph Catholic Church in downtown Pensacola, clear plastic sheets cover the stained-glass windows cracked by Ivan, and an orange plastic-mesh fence stands in for the metal one that used to be there. About two miles west, a plywood panel over the window of a single-story home reads, "Go home Ivan."
"None of us would wish this on anybody, but, gosh, we've had our share," said Susan Willis, 55, an elementary school art teacher who lives in the barrier island community of Gulf Breeze. "It is time for Mother Nature to pick another spot."
Willis and her husband, Tom, 62, a retired real estate broker, lost almost everything last fall when Ivan demolished their waterfront home. The storm blew down walls, ripped the toilets off the floor and tore gaping holes in the roof, according to Susan Willis. They knew they were in trouble when they returned and stumbled upon their refrigerator five blocks from their house, she said.
Bill Losquadro, 42, spent Saturday morning boarding up the windows and caulking the front door of the Subway sandwich store he owns a few hundred yards from the ocean in Pensacola Beach.
Ivan "destroyed, totaled" the one-story stucco shop, said Losquadro, his white T-shirt soaked with sweat. It took seven months of renovations before he could open for business again, and now another storm may undo all of his hard work. Losquadro has owned the shop for nine years, but lately he's been thinking about selling.
"Everybody is kind of fed up, you know?" he said. "My thought was, why didn't I sell it after the last one? But I figured I have to stay open another year or two to at least recoup the damages. It looks like I just bought myself another few years."
In Cuba, 10 people were killed Thursday night when the storm struck the southeastern corner of the island and destroyed many homes in two coastal towns. Workers spent the day clearing debris, fallen trees, lampposts and electrical lines from streets in urban areas. Much of the country was still without power, including Havana, the capital, and Cienfuegos, the city on the south-central coast hardest hit by the storm.
In southern Haiti, 15 people died when a raging river tore away a bridge. The overall death toll in Haiti reached 22, officials said.
Although southern Florida was spared the full force of the storm, most of the power outages were in the Florida Keys and other parts of southern Florida -- including the Miami area, which suffered through stormy weather.
FEMA has pre-positioned trucks, meals ready to eat, water, plastic sheeting and cots, and other supplies in a wide arc that runs from Homestead, Fla., to Orlando and Atlanta and across the South over to Texas, Michael D. Brown, the agency's director, said in a telephone interview.
"We want to be able to handle a large storm regardless of where it makes landfall," he said.
FEMA assisted 1 million people and spent $5 billion on hurricane relief efforts in Florida last year, Brown said, compared with the $3 billion it spends on such efforts nationwide in a typical year. Debbie Bishop, 29, a sandwich-maker at the Goatlips Deli in Pensacola, frets that the smashed wood pilings and remnants of houses wrecked by Ivan that still litter some beaches "are just going to be flying missiles" when Dennis's winds blow through.
But not everyone was so nervous.
Lee and Clara Milner, Detroit residents who have a second home in Gulf Breeze, were not here when Ivan blew out their front and patio doors and opened several holes in the roof. They and their daughter Hakima, 14, plan to stay during Dennis. Clara Milner said she didn't understand why so many people seemed so upset.
"I'm excited," she confessed. "What are you going to be angry at God's work for? He's just cleaning things out, that's how I see it."
Staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia contributed to this report.