The once-mighty storm known as Dennis — a Category 4 hurricane with 145 mile-per-hour winds just 16 hours ago — was downgraded to a tropical storm at 8:00 PM, less than six hours after making landfall near Pensacola, Florida.
In typical sensationalistic fashion, Matt Drudge’s current headline reads “HELL FROM THE SEA,” but the truth is that Dennis wasn’t all that bad, especially considering the calamity it could have been. Technically, it was a Category 3 “major hurricane” at landfall — which means, among other things, that its name will be retired from the sextennial hurricane name rotation; there will never be another Dennis in the Atlantic basin — but it seems somewhat questionable (to me at least) whether Dennis really had 125 mph sustained winds at landfall. At any rate, substantial weakening in the hurricane’s final hours over water, combined with a favorable landfall location (with the more heavily populated and flood-prone areas on the less-powerful west side of the storm), conspired to make the damage considerably less severe than virtually anyone would have dared to hope 24 hours ago, when Dennis was strengthening so rapidly that some feared it might become a Category Five monster. Ultimately, the Gulf Coast simply got lucky:
Hurricane Dennis roared quickly through the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast Sunday with a 120-mph bluster of blinding squalls and crashing waves, but shellshocked residents emerged to find far less damage than when Ivan took nearly the same path 10 months ago.
The tightly wound Dennis, which had been a Category 4, 145-mph monster as it marched up the Gulf of Mexico, weakened just before it struck less than 50 miles east of Ivan’s landfall. And despite downed power lines and outages to more than 200,000, early reports indicated no deaths and relatively modest structural damage.
“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 home near where the storm came ashore. “It was more of a show for the kids.” …
Escambia County Commissioner Mike Whitehead said initial reports indicate some broken windows, trees and power lines down, minor flooding in downtown Pensacola and a few trees falling on houses.
“Because of where it went in, we missed a real close shot. It went into a relatively unpopulated area,” 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’s coastal Baldwin County, which was ground zero for Ivan last year, officials also breathed a sigh of relief.
“We dodged a bullet,” said emergency management director Leigh Anne Ryals.
Depending on what happens with the steering currents over the next few days, Dennis’s legacy in the United States may be inland flooding, rather than coastal destruction. If the current forecast track holds, this could be a major rain event for the Ohio Valley.
But for now, there is reason to be thankful. Dennis could have been a catastrophe for the U.S. Gulf Coast, but in the end, it wasn’t.
Of course, that’s no reason for the folks down there to let their guard down. Those who evacuated were absolutely right to do so; a few minor changes in the meterological scenario could have yielded a totally different result. And next time, heaven forbid, they just might. So be thankful, Floridians, but also, be prepared for the next one. After all, it’s only July.