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Hurricane Dennis grows to level 4

Evacuation ordered for lower Keys; Bush declares emergency

story.infrared.dennis.jpg
An infrared satellite image shows Hurricane Dennis approaching Cuba at 7:45 p.m. ET Thursday.

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HURRICANE DENNIS

As of 11 p.m. ET Thursday
Position of center: 105 miles (170 km) south of Camaguey, Cuba

Latitude: 19.9 north

Longitiude:
77.6 west

Top sustained winds:
135 mph (215 kph)

Source: National Hurricane Center

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Hurricane Dennis reached Category 4 strength Thursday night as it churned just off the coast of Cuba, while Florida officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of the lower Florida Keys.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency to mobilize resources to deal with the impending storm, which packed maximum sustained winds of 135 mph late Thursday.

Dennis is poised to strike central Cuba Friday and then menace the lower Florida Keys early Saturday morning before moving into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Hurricane Center.

After that, the three-day forecast track shows the storm could affect the U.S. Gulf Coast anywhere from southwest Florida to southeast Louisiana.

On its current path, projected landfall would be along the Florida Panhandle near Pensacola Sunday evening, though such predictions often change due to the unpredictable behavior of hurricanes.

"The whole Florida Gulf Coast -- and even over to Alabama and Mississippi -- they need to pay very, very close attention to Hurricane Dennis," National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said late Thursday.

At Category 4, forecasters characterized Dennis as "extremely dangerous," capable of causing extensive damage and flooding. The most destructive hurricane class is Category 5.

The hurricane is expected to weaken slightly as it crosses Cuba, but forecasters said the storm is still likely to be Category 3 -- with winds between 111 mph to 130 mph -- when it reaches the central Gulf Coast late Sunday.

That strength is comparable to Hurricane Ivan, which caused significant damage in the same area last year.

In his executive order declaring an emergency, Bush said Dennis threatens a "major disaster" in a state still recovering from four hurricane strikes in 2004.

With the center of Dennis expected to pass about 40 miles from the Keys early Saturday morning, officials in Monroe County, Florida, ordered a mandatory evacuation for residents of the lower islands, from the Seven Mile Bridge to Key West.

Visitors and non-residents had been told to leave earlier in the day.

At 11 p.m. ET, the hurricane's center was located near Cabo Cruz, an outward jut of land in southeastern Cuba, moving northwest at nearly 15 mph.

On that track, the hurricane would move up the country's southern coast and make landfall in central Cuba late Friday morning, forecasters said.

Dennis' hurricane force winds reached 50 miles from the center, while tropical storm-force winds were being felt 140 miles away.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the lower Florida Keys, which means forecasters expect hurricane conditions in the area within the next 24 hours.

The hurricane center urged people to rush preparations to protect life and property, forecasting 4 to 8 inches of rain and a storm surge of 3 feet to 6 feet around the low-lying islands.

A hurricane warning also covered most of Cuba, including Havana, as well as Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

The warning issued for southwestern Haiti was canceled Thursday night as the storm moved west, and forecasters said the warning for Jamaica would likely be canceled Friday morning.

With the storm's approach, a number of other watches and warnings affecting parts of Florida were also issued.

The storm is expected to dump 5 to 10 inches of rain on Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and the Cayman Islands, with 15 inches possible in southeast Cuba's Sierra Maestra Mountains. The heavy rains could produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, forecasters warned.

The storm surge is expected to be 5 feet to 7 feet along the Cuban coast east of Cabo Cruz, but the surge could reach 20 feet in coastal areas to the west, forecasters warned.

The U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay has shut down its airport, cancelled boat and ferry services and prepared an evacuation plan, but would not provide details.

The detention facility there houses roughly 520 suspects from 44 countries, most of them captured during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan against the al Qaeda terrorist network and its allies.

At the Kennedy Space Center, about 200 miles north of Miami on the Atlantic Coast, NASA managers said they will decide by noon Friday whether to roll the space shuttle Discovery off the launch pad and back into its assembly building.

Launching Discovery would end a nearly two-and-a-half-year break in the shuttle program that followed the Columbia disaster.

Cindy swamps South

Tropical Storm Cindy soaked Mobile, coming ashore late Tuesday near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana with sustained winds of 70 mph (112 kph).

Portions of states from South Carolina north to Vermont are under flood watches, the National Hurricane Center said Thursday.

The remnants of the storm were expected to dump 2 to 4 inches of rain from the central Appalachians to southern New England.

Strong winds and heavy rain lashed northern Georgia Wednesday night.

Some of the heaviest damage was concentrated around Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Atlanta.

Authorities evacuated a nine-story condominium building near the track after parts of the roof were torn off and windows were blown out.

Cindy's move across the Gulf of Mexico forced the evacuation of 23 of 819 oil platforms and six of 135 oil rigs, according to the Minerals Management Service. Dennis' approach, as a stronger storm, could prompt more.

The shutdown has interrupted more than 3 percent of the Gulf's normal oil and natural gas production, pushing oil prices above $60 a barrel in trading Wednesday. (Full storyexternal link)

CNN's Eric Fiegel contributed to this story.

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