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 » 2006 Forecast  | Saffir-Simpson scale  |  Your stories

Dennis nears U.S.

Storm strengthens to Category 4

story.dennis.florida.jpg
A satellite image taken at 6:28 p.m. ET shows Hurricane Dennis moving through Florida.

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Watch CNN for complete coverage of Hurricane Dennis' path and impact with live reports and weather advisories as they develop.

HURRICANE DENNIS

As of 12 a.m. ET Sunday
Position of center:
235 miles south of Panama City, Florida
Latitude: 26.5 north
Longitude:
85.2 west
Top sustained winds:
135 mph
Source: National Hurricane Center

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Florida
Cuba
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Hurricane Dennis

PENSACOLA BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- Hurricane Dennis, which has strengthened to a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 135 mph, brushed by Key West, Florida, on its way to a predicted direct hit on the U.S. Gulf coast.

The large area is still recovering from Hurricane Ivan last September, and Dennis could prove even stronger, warned National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield.

Forecasters predict Dennis will strike Sunday between Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama, and could become a Category 4 by then.

According to the Saffir-Simpson scale of strength, a Category 4 hurricane has winds from 131 mph to 155 mph and can cause extreme damage.

Hurricane-force winds likely will hit the coast about dawn, followed by the eyewall and then the eye, possibly between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., said CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras.

Some 10 million Americans are potentially in Dennis' path, according to federal officials.

Dennis is already being blamed for up to 32 deaths in Haiti and Cuba.

At midnight Saturday, Dennis was centered 235 miles south of Panama City, Florida, and 330 miles southeast of Biloxi, Mississippi. The hurricane is moving northwest near 14 mph. A gradual turn toward the north-northwest is expected in the next 24 hours.

The NHC predicts nearly a foot of rain is possible in some parts of the Gulf Coast where the hurricane makes landfall. The NHC advisory noted that storm surges could reach 12 to 14 feet, with large battering waves.

It was moving northwest at about 13 mph, and was expected to turn to the north-northwest during the night. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 40 miles from the storm's eye, and tropical storm-force winds extended up to 175 miles.

Memories and the effects of Ivan still linger. The storm was blamed for at least 56 deaths in the United States and more than 60 in Jamaica and Grenada. It destroyed countless homes and left billions of dollars in damage. Hurricane Dennis is already being blamed for 32 deaths in Haiti and Cuba.

Key West's streets deserted

Minor damage was reported in largely deserted Key West, and authorities asked residents to remain indoors Saturday.

Forecasters said 4 to 8 inches of rain are expected across the Florida Keys, the Florida west coast, the Florida panhandle, southern Alabama and southern Mississippi.

Isolated tornadoes are possible in those areas of Florida as well.

A tornado was reported in Manatee County, Florida, some 200 miles from Dennis' center, Saturday morning.

Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate asked residents of the Keys to stay in their homes or, if they have left their homes, to wait until authorities give an all-clear before trying to return.

Residents of the Florida Panhandle, he said, still have time to evacuate, but "today, you need to act. There is no longer an option that you can hope this storm away."

The governors of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana declared states of emergency, and evacuations began in low-lying areas and barrier islands, including a number of popular beach resorts.

"We are working around the clock to prepare," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Saturday. He promised an efficient relief response to Floridians -- particularly those in the northwest part of the state, where repairs from last year's Hurricane Ivan continue.

And he urged residents to evacuate, if urged to do so, and to stock up on supplies if they choose to remain in their homes.

As of 8 p.m. ET, a hurricane warning was in effect for parts of the northeastern Gulf Coast, including a stretch along the Florida Panhandle to the Louisiana-Mississippi border.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for the lower Keys and much of Florida's west coast.

Louisiana's southeastern coast, including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, was also under a tropical storm warning.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin told people that while less severe conditions were being forecast there, "we want you to be somewhat comfortable but not totally relaxed, because you never know.

"A hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico is liable to go in any direction."

Parts of Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi were put under a mandatory evacuation order issued for Harrison County's coastal areas Saturday. People have until 6 a.m. the next morning to leave the area.

More than 1,100 workers were evacuated from offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in the path of the storm. The U.S. Navy and Air Force also moved ships, aircraft and personnel out of bases in the Florida Panhandle.

In Washington, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has begun sending supplies such as ice, water and plastic sheeting to storm-threatened Southern states. Disaster medical assistance teams also have been deployed.

Haiti and Cuba

In Haiti the aid agency Concern Worldwide said it had confirmed at least five people had been killed in the storm, but said it believed the accuracy of local reports of 22 dead.

The 10 dead reported in Cuba were located in the eastern part of the island, authorities said.

Many of the 1.4 million evacuees in Cuba began to return home Saturday afternoon, despite a lack of electricity in most areas. Many had sought shelter in schools, hospitals, government buildings and relatives' homes.

Power had not yet been re-established in Havana as of Saturday morning. Emergency teams there began clearing streets of downed trees, branches and lightposts.

The NHC said 3 to 6 more inches of rain was possible across central Cuba and "could produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides."

CNN's Lucia Newman in Havana and Eric Fiegel, Randy Kaye, Kathleen Koch, Mike Mount and Patrick Oppmann contributed to this report.

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