NAVARRE BEACH, Fla. - With a sigh of relief, Gulf Coast residents began hurricane cleanup - again. Hurricane Dennis hit the storm-weary Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast on Sunday with less force than forecasters feared, sparing the region the widespread destruction caused by Ivan last September.
Floodwater inundated a fishing village and miles of a Panhandle coastal highway. More than 550,000 customers in four states were left without power, and some could be out for three weeks or more. But hours after landfall, officials reported little major structural damage.
"I think we dodged a pretty large bullet," said Nick Zangari, a restaurant and bar owner in Pensacola. "I think people took more precautions the second time around."
By 5 a.m., Dennis had weakened to a tropical depression over northeast Mississippi with 35 mph winds. As it moved north-northwest at 14 mph, forecasters warned that the remnants of Dennis could dump up to 3 to 6 inches of rain as it traveled north through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. Tornadoes were possible in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Dennis caused an estimated $1 billion to $2.5 billion in insured damage in the United States, according to AIR Worldwide Corp. of Boston, an insurance risk modeling company.
Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Monday that while damage wasn't as widespread as expected, the storm was still devastating to those whose homes were damaged.
"We have to get help to them," he said on NBC's "Today" show. FEMA crews will be out Monday distributing emergency supplies and then will begin the task of providing long-term relief, he said.
In Fort Lauderdale, a man was electrocuted when he stepped on a power line brought down by strong winds. He had been heading toward a house for shelter and apparently didn't see the streetlight cable on the ground, police spokesman Bill Schultz said. His body was found early Sunday.
A fast-moving Category 3 hurricane when it came ashore with 120 mph winds, Dennis was smaller than Ivan and weaker than when it churned through the Gulf of Mexico as a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm.
"We're really happy it was compact and that it lasted only so long," said Mike Decker, who lost only some shingles and a privacy fence at his Navarre home, near where the storm came ashore. "It was more of a show for the kids."
A show it was: Striking less than 50 miles east of where Ivan came ashore, Dennis generated white-capped waves spewing four-story geysers over sea walls. Boats broke loose and bobbed like toys in the roiling ocean. Roofs went flying, power lines fell and rain blew sideways in sheets.
High winds forced the shutdown of the Escambia Bay Bridge, a symbol of Ivan's destruction when a section collapsed and a trucker plunged to his death. Waves offshore exceeded 30 feet, and in downtown Pensacola, the gulf spilled over sidewalks eight blocks inland.
On Navarre Beach, the storm cut a pier in two, and a gas station parking lot collapsed into the sound between the island and the mainland.
There was scattered flooding. Some of the worst occurred in St. Marks, south of Tallahassee, where a marina, other businesses and homes were under water. Roads into the fishing town were impassable, and there was flooding in the coastal towns of Shell Point and Oyster Bay.
Flooding on U.S. 98, a major coastal highway in the Panhandle, cut off main routes into beach communities. The Panama City Marine Institute also was under water.
When the storm passed, John and Cathy Larker of Navarre Shores waded back to their house, which looked like a castle surrounded by a moat. At least six feet of gulf water surged into the three-story home, buckling the garage doors.
Larker said he finished repairing damage from Ivan five weeks ago.
"I've lived here 23 years," he said. "I've been through several hurricanes, and I just keep patching up. I guess I'll patch it up again."
Power outages affected more than 236,700 homes and businesses in the Panhandle, some 280,000 in Alabama, 55,000 in Georgia and at least 5,000 people in Mississippi. Gulf Power Co., the main utility for the western Panhandle, said customers should be prepared to do without electricity for three weeks or more.
Still, officials and residents had feared worse. Hurricane-force winds stretched only 40 miles from the center, compared with 105 miles for Ivan, and the eye of Dennis tore through at nearly 20 mph, compared to Ivan's 13 mph. Dennis was responsible for at least 20 deaths in the Caribbean.
By the time Dennis crashed ashore, maximum rainfall was measured at 8 inches, rather than the expected foot. "We were spared the wrath of an Ivan," Escambia County Emergency Management Chief Matt Lopez said.
There was little evident damage between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach, where the hurricane made landfall. Gas station awnings were ripped and sheds overturned, but there were few downed power lines or trees. The normally placid blue Gulf was still churned into a tea-colored froth, but few homes, even along the shore, appeared to have sustained extensive flooding.
"Because of where it went in, we missed a real close shot. It went into a relatively unpopulated area," Escambia County Commissioner Mike Whitehead said. "If that thing had shifted 20 miles to the west, we'd have been in trouble, but we got real lucky."
In Alabama, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach officials reported no significant damage. Celebrating the storm's passage with champagne were Mike and Claudia Miceli of Gulf Shores, who are still repairing damage Ivan inflicted on their house.
"We thought surely this time it would be gone," Miceli said.
Dennis became the fifth hurricane to strike Florida in less than 11 months. President Bush issued a major disaster declaration for the state. He also declared 38 counties in Mississippi and 45 counties in Alabama federal disaster areas, making them eligible for assistance from FEMA.
"To be honest with you, I was worried when they said them old winds were packing Category 4," said Melissa Hill, manager of a motel in Foley, Ala., about 10 miles from the coast. "Everybody should thank God that they are alive and have got a place to go home to."
Meanwhile, a fifth tropical depression gained strength early Monday far out in the Atlantic, with top sustained winds of 35 mph. Forecasters said it could become a tropical storm over the next day. The next tropical storm will be named Emily.
At 5 a.m., the depression was 1,185 miles east of the Windward Islands, and heading in the general direction of the Caribbean islands and Florida.