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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Hurricane Dennis

Aired July 9, 2005 - 23:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We're back after a quick break.
(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I would love to live on the Gulf Coast, Alabama, Florida Panhandle; the most beautiful beaches in the whole world. If you get enough notice that when a hurricane is coming that you can evacuate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I would live on the Gulf Coast. It is a beautiful place that is full of culture and wonderful warm people beautiful scenery, wonderful seafood. The risk of hurricanes are very great, they've gotten worse over the last few years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I would live on the Gulf Coast. That is where I'm from and that's where I'll die.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... on the Gulf Coast, I'm very happy in Southern California for 50 years. I have felt the earth move a couple of times in all that time and that's a lot better than trying to build and rebuild and build. I just don't understand why people live there, at all.

ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LIN: All right. Welcome back to your hurricane headquarters, here at CNN. We're going to go straight to the CNN Weather Center. Jacqui Jeras, you've been pouring over the latest forecasts out of the National Hurricane Center. What's it telling you now?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, I don't have much more than what I had last time, Carol. And that's because we're waiting for the discussion to come in, and that tells us what the meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center are thinking an why they think this is going to be going a little bit more westward. So all I really have to go on right now is my eyeball and keep in mind I've been here 12 hours already here today.

But it does look like we're seeing a little bit of a shift off to the west. We've been talking about near the Pensacola area, now it looks maybe a little closer towards Gulf Shores. Keep in mind there is still a margin for error. We talk about this cone. Things can change. We've seen some wobbles today and we may see more wobbles or some minor turns. Now the winds, the maximum sustained winds, 125 m.p.h., so that is just coming in with the 11 o'clock advisory. That was the same as what we saw at 9 o'clock Eastern Time. So we see now changes in the last two hours at least in terms of the wind, the strength of the wind. So that is actually good news if we can hold this thing steady, better to see a Category 3 than a Category 4 make a landfall, right? And especially the area it is heading for, at least it appears, at this time.

Forecast track, this is it from the National Hurricane Center. And there you can see it is somewhere near the state lines of Alabama and Florida. So still a little iffy at this point, holding at a Category 4 as it makes landfall.

Look at those winds, what we're forecasting here, 140 m.p.h., gusting up to 165 m.p.h. That is going to be causing some major damage. Speaking of major, we've had major intensification all day long. Think about it. This morning, you woke up, this was a Category 1 hurricane. Now, we're pushing, getting close, just six m.p.h. away from this thing becoming a Category 4. And judging just by the satellite imagery boy things still look very organized they look very symmetrical we are seeing no signs at this time that this is weakening any. So still expecting intensification then through the rest of the night for tonight.

What a huge area this is another change that I have seen in the advisory is how far out the winds go. The hurricane force winds only go out about 40 miles from the center of the storm that's from each side. So do your math, 80 miles, right? But now the tropical storm force winds all the reports I have seen throughout the day have been about 175 miles out from the center of the storm. Now we are talking 230 miles from the center of the storm. So that is a huge magnitude hurricane, this covering a lot of real estate here folks.

It's about 250 miles south of Panama City at this time. Of course, continuing to inch even closer. You can see we have a brand new tornado watch, which has just been issued and now this is nudging into southern parts of Georgia and into southern Alabama so be aware that these feeder bands are starting to move into your neighborhood at this time. You've been dealing with that threat across the Florida Peninsula all day long. We haven't had much of a rotation since earlier this morning. In fact, a few touchdowns near the Sarasota/Bradenton area.

And we just got a brand new tornado warning in near the top of the hour. And this one is from Madison County. And there you can see that one highlighted right near the state line and that possible tornado -- it's a radar indicated tornado -- moving to the north and west at 30 m.p.h. And keep in mind as we start to get these tornado warnings, Carol, that you might not always see them. It's dark outside. You are probably not going to see it coming. Not to mention, all of the rain associated with it -- Carol.

LIN: All right. Look forward to more in about 15 minutes. Thanks very much, Jacqui. Now, you don't have to tell the residents of Florida's Panhandle that a storm of this size and strength is nothing to joke about. CNN's Randi Kaye met a Pensacola Beach family who learned that lesson a year ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we had Ivan the Terrible last year, got Dennis the Menace this year. It's like what are they going to come up with next here.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): In the wake of Ivan, which slammed Pensacola Beach last September, there isn't much left for Dennis to destroy. Neighborhoods look like dumping grounds. Homes appear frozen in time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We rode out Ivan in Gulf Breeze a couple of blocks from the sound, in an area called Tiger Point. And it was like sitting on the train tracks with the train going by a 100 m.p.h.

KAYE: Dan and Patricia Clifton have decided to leave their home behind this time. It's just blocks from the beach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's so tough to leave everything you own and everything you have and walk away from it and say, hey, you know, forget it.

KAYE (on camera): And so all of this was downstairs and you're bringing this upstairs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, yes, we've just been bringing it upstairs. Because last time the storm came through the bottom was destroyed. So, just trying to save as much as we can.

KAYE (voice over): Dennis' path look eerily similar to Ivan's. And that has the Cliftons boarding up and packing up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's move it right around the corner here.

KAYE: The Cliftons just finished some major repairs from Ivan, including a new fence. Now it's all at risk again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know the house behind has got debris all piled up in the backyard. And 100-m.p.h. door hitting the back of my house, you know, doesn't really do a whole lot for me, as far as making me want to smile.

KAYE (on camera): Dan has good reason to worry. Clean up here in Pensacola Beach has been slow. Hurricane Ivan had dropped a house right here in the front yard of this home, right where I'm standing. That home wasn't cleared until just two weeks ago, nearly a year after that hurricane.

(voice over): All across Pensacola Beach there are efforts to hold onto what Ivan didn't take and defend against Dennis. John Erinriech (ph) and his family are trying to keep their water sports business above water.

(on camera): What are you trying to do here with the sandbagging.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm trying to protect brand new grass from getting washed away, cut undercut by the waves.

KAYE (voice over): Late Saturday afternoon, as the sky turned gray and the ocean turned choppy, there were a handful of brave kite boarders still trying to enjoy the calm before the storm. But soon enough the wind kicked up and the sky opened up. Pensacola Beach was a officially shutting down, evacuation in full swing. All kinds seemed to heed the warning, find higher ground, go somewhere safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is way you pay to live in Paradise.

KAYE: And come back when Dennis is done. Randi Kaye, CNN, Pensacola Beach, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LIN: So let's take you now live to Pensacola. That's where we find CNN's John Zarrella standing by.

John, it's pretty heartening taking a look at folks along the shore talking to Randi Kaye, trying to build a two-foot high wall of sandbags when the storm surge could be 13 feet high, if Hurricane Dennis hits at a Category 4.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it. The sandbags won't do a whole heck of a lot of good if they get that over wash and they actually get 12, 13 foot of storm surge down there.

You know, it's interesting because today it was actually quite nice here. Certainly a little bit steamy, but nice weather overall. And then this evening we had one squall line move through, couple three hours ago. Since then the wind has picked up a little bit. It's a nice breeze here. Hard to believe that 24 hours from now, when we're talking with you, the scene is going to be quite a bit different. We'll be looking at the aftermath of what Dennis has left behind. And it probably won't be a very pretty picture on the Panhandle, in Pensacola, Alabama, all along this area.

Now, evacuations, of course, began yesterday. People getting out as quickly as they could, a lot of people knowing and reminded of what had happened a year ago in Ivan, did not wait. They got out of town quickly. There are a lot of folks in shelters, though, they had about 600 people in shelters in Pensacola as of earlier today. The number this evening is up to about 2100. They can hold about 8,500 people in those shelters.

And authorities here are telling folks that if they are planning to go to the shelters, get there by midnight. If you are planning to evacuate and leave the area, leave by midnight, because the conditions are expected to start to go downhill quite rapidly. Now the transit authority is going to run as long as it can to get people off the barrier islands. Hopefully they're all off by now, but those that are stragglers, they are going to run so they can get people off the islands. Gas lines, of course, were terrible here as well, all day, with people fueling up and topping off their tanks. Because it may be a while before there is electricity or fuel in this area -- Carol.

LIN: All right. John Zarrella, we'll see what tomorrow brings. Thanks very much. In the meantime the Gulf Coast is a long way from Washington, D.C., but federal emergency officials there are just as anxiously awaiting the storm's arrival. They are also just a powerless to stop it as those families fleeing the hurricane's path. Kathleen Koch reports from there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Alix Mattison and her husband packed their bags and their twins and headed to a relative's home in Washington to escape Hurricane Dennis. They live in the Florida Keys, right on the water.

ALIX MATTISON, EVACUEE FROM FLORIDA: We were out for six months from Hurricane Ivan. And then we moved back in, in the middle of March. So now we're evacuating again.

KOCH: Laura Johnson, too, has evacuation fatigue.

LAURA JOHNSON, EVACUEE FROM FLORIDA: I'm pretty worried. And we just board up our windows. And it is just a repeat of Ivan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to our video teleconference this afternoon on Hurricane Dennis.

KOCH: Across town the Federal Emergency Management Agency conferenced with states in the storm's path to make sure everyone is ready.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The effort is going quite well. And also the cooperation with our state partners and our advanced teams in the field.

MICHAEL BROWN, DIRECTOR, FEMA: We're in total response mode right now. We're moving in supplies. We're moving in the meals ready-to-eat, ice, water, cots, medical personal.

KOCH: In nearby Maryland, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration kept a watchful eye on Dennis' progress. That job will continue even as the storm moves onshore, because of the possibility of deadly inland flooding.

ROBERT KELLEY, DIR., FORECAST OPS., NOAA: Even people further inland, in the lower Mississippi Valley, heading up -- and this storm will continue up to the lower Ohio River Valley. People need to be aware because there will be heavy rain inland and it could be very dangerous. KOCH: The 2004 hurricane season marked the largest disaster response and recovery effort in FEMA's history. It spent more than $5 billion in Florida alone. But the head of FEMA insists those hurricanes have not hampered the agency's ability to respond this year.

BROWN: We still have a lot of recovery operations going on throughout the Southeast. So we already have some people and equipment down here. So the good news about last year's storms is that it has made us even better prepared for this year's storms.

KOCH (on camera): Still FEMA officials know they have their work cut out for them with forecasters predicting a hurricane season just as bad as last year's -- Kathleen Koch, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LIN: Now, a short time ago I spoke with Michael Brown, the FEMA director. So stay with your hurricane headquarters for that discussion. He's going to talk about what the federal government is going to do to help these folks.

And we're keeping our eye on Hurricane Dennis all night for you. So ahead this hour, we are going to see how the residents along Alabama's Gulf Coast are preparing for the big storm that is now headed their way.

And staring down Dennis, we are going to have the story of one man who is prepared to wait the hurricane out.

And later, how is the federal government planning to help residents in Dennis' path? Once again, FEMA Director Michael Brown. And, hey, take a look at this. These are the first pictures we're getting from our first citizen journalist. Susan Hayward, thank you very much, from Punta Gorda, Florida. You are taking a look there at clearly some of the winds and the water that are already hitting the shores there, as the rain bands start stretching out towards the United States mainland. Hurricane Dennis is on it's way.

Send you pictures, you citizen journalists out there. Send your photos and video to CNN.com/hurricane. Follow the directions on the site. We want to see some of the pictures that you have out there. Don't take any unnecessary chances, but we want to hear from you.

ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LIN: Welcome back to CNN, your hurricane headquarters, as we track the progress of Hurricane Dennis, which is heading towards the Southeastern United States. CNN Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras standing by in the CNN Weather Center, with more on that -- Jacqui.

JERAS: Hi, Carol. We'll we seen a little bit of a shift to the west, or to the left, of the storm. It's really not all that different from what the original forecast track is. I had a chance to read that discussion I was talking about. And the meteorologists say that they are thinking it is still pretty much the same, it is just slightly off to the west. So even though Pensacola may not get the direct hit, it still has a margin of error out there. But keep in mind you're still on the bad side of the storm. So either way you are going to get nailed pretty good here, into the Florida Panhandle, also into southern parts of Alabama. Forecast has it as a Category 4 when it makes landfall. Winds right now at 125 m.p.h. and that makes it a Category 3. And it is somewhere around 250 miles away from Panama City at this hour.

Now we've heard a lot of comparison here, throughout the afternoon and evening hours, between Ivan and Dennis. How similar are these two storms? Well, not all that similar, except for possibly where they make landfall. This is Dennis and where it has been and this over here was the path of Ivan. That made landfall as a Category 3 with 120-m.p.h. winds, last September.

We'll put this into motion for you. And you can see that Ivan came up this way and here's Dennis coming in the other way. This is where they cross. Ivan continued to push through the eastern Tennessee Valley and then on up into the Northeast. But the forecast track here, of Dennis, has it moving back over into Mississippi and then even into western Tennessee, probably going to make it's way back up into the Ohio Valley.

So the similarities of the storm have really not much of a comparison. Ivan went right through the Yucatan Channel there, and also we had Dennis moving right over Cuba. So the only real comparison here is maybe where they make landfall. It looks like Dennis is going to be a much worse storm. So, just to give you and idea of what to expect. You thought Ivan was bad. Here comes Dennis.

LIN: Yes, Ivan, just last September, Jacqui. It feels like yesterday.

JERAS: I know, less than a year.

LIN: All right. Those poor folks in Pensacola. They are definitely preparing for the worst right now. Thank you.

JERAS: Uh-huh.

LIN: Well, as we just heard the Alabama coast is right now in the danger zone. Many people are heeding evacuation orders and heading for higher ground. Others, though, are taking their chances at staying put, hoping for the best. Now forecasters warn that Mobile may suffer a direct hit from Dennis. CNN's Dan Lothian is in that city and has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Boarding up and appealing to a higher power. Residents in Mobile, Alabama braced for Hurricane Dennis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We think it is very important. We'd like to put that message out to everybody. You know, need to pray. That's the only thing that is going to get us through this thing. And at least calm our nerves and, you know, just keep things straight.

LOTHIAN: This restaurant's trademark shark has been removed from its rooftop perch. The employees are pitching in, placing tables, chairs and other supplies from the first floor into large containers and sending them to storage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's hard to believe it is so pretty, it's going to be such a bad storm coming. Hopefully we'll have a business to come back to.

LOTHIAN: Anything that can blow away has been removed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you worry about some of the inventory that's left, you know, we'll loose the coolers. Primary thing is really just the safety of the employees.

LOTHIAN: Owners say they have been hit by other hurricanes. Last year Ivan caused extensive damage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. It just -- they're just getting closer and closer. It's getting to be a hard time.

LOTHIAN: But the threat of more storms and more damage doesn't appear to dampen the desire to keep this business right where it is, on the water's edge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know that is the price you pay for living in paradise. You know, south Alabama is absolutely beautiful and we're thankful to be here.

LOTHIAN (on camera): A mandatory evacuation order has been issue for Mobile and surrounding areas and more than 70 shelters are now open. Emergency officials are now considering imposing a curfew from tomorrow morning to tomorrow evening -- Dan Lothian, CNN, Mobile, Alabama.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LIN: Well some smaller Alabama towns have already imposed overnight curfews. Now, Gulf Shores, Alabama is spending a restless night. Just 10 months ago the resort community was hit hard by Hurricane Ivan. Much of the barrier island was under six feet of water. And now Gulf Shores finds itself, again, in harm's way. So, joining my now, by telephone is Gulf Shores mayor, George Duke.

Mayor Duke, do you have a mandatory evacuation order in your area now?

GEORGE DUKE, MAYOR, GULF SHORES, ALABAMA: Yes, ma'am, it was -- we had a voluntary, it began yesterday morning and then it went on through this morning and everyone is out, here.

LIN: Is out of there?

DUKE: Yes, ma'am.

LIN: That is good news indeed. So, is a curfew even an issue then? We have a curfew all in Baldwin County from 9 o'clock tonight till 5 in the morning.

LIN: Yes, in Mobile, some 500 national guards people are mobilizing in the town. Are you going to need that kind of help as well?

DUKE: Yes, ma'am, we have a number of them on request, that we will have in here, just as soon as they can get here after the storm.

LIN: What do you think their role is going to be?

DUKE: Mainly security and traffic control, once we allow re- entry, but initially it will be security.

LIN: Can you believe Mayor Duke, that you're going through this, again?

DUKE: Well, it's hard to believe, but we are. As much as we regret that we are an we really do not look forward to it. One of the things that happens occasionally, when you live on a coast. People here are very resolved folks and we will come back again.

LIN: Do you know where all those folks who were evacuated, where did they go? Are they seeking help in shelters or are they trying to find their family and friends?

DUKE: Well, most of ours are tourist people and most of them, of course, away from here, north of here, and they've gone back to their homes and their families. People that live here have gone to different parts of the state. Many of them have just gone 10 to 20, 30 miles up. Many of them have gone to the northern part of the state.

LIN: Mayor Duke, you're still in town. How are you going to find protection during the storm and monitor things from you end?

DUKE: Well, we have an EOC center here in our city hall that is a pretty strong structure. As well as the police station, and we also have a bunker just about 2 miles north of here.

LIN: All right. Well protected and well prepared, it sounds like, that people have heeded the warning to get out of town. Mayor Duke, good luck to you.

DUKE: Thank you very much.

LIN: All right. We'll be talking throughout our storm coverage. Much more of our hurricane coverage straight ahead with Dennis threatening to pummel the Gulf Coast, why would anyone want to ride out the storm? Well, you are going to hear from one resident who is doing just that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) LIN: Well, 1.5 million people have been evacuated along the Gulf shore coast, because Hurricane Dennis is on its way, but not everyone is heeding the warnings to evacuate. Many, in fact, have decided literally to ride out the storm. Joining me now from Panama City, Florida, are Chris Reagh and Matt Davis. Both are students at Arnold High School and are pretty avid surfers.

OK, guys, you heard the warning. I mean, you have a hurricane coming your way that is going to be blowing, maybe 130, 140 mile an hour winds. Why aren't you getting out of here, Chris?

CHRIS REAGH, RIDING OUT DENNIS: My mom wanted to ride it out, so we just said we'll just stay and ride it out -- and it brings in waves.

LIN: Wait, so are you saying that you are going to actually go out there and try to ride these waves?

REAGH: After the storm.

LIN: After the storm? All right.

REAGH: Yes, after the storm.

LIN: After the storm, OK. Well, Hurricane Ivan was active for 22 days. Chris, did you know that Hurricane Ivan, last September that hit the Gulf Shores, I mean it generated a wave somewhere out at sea 90 feet high. I mean, you are talking about killer surf.

REAGH: Yeah.

LIN: That gets you pretty excited?

MATT DAVIS, RIDING OUT DENNIS: Yeah, it does.

REAGH: Yeah.

LIN: Oh, my gosh. Guys, you know, what if you get in trouble and you call 911, the authorities say they are not coming out to help people in hurricane winds. What can you do for yourself?

REAGH: Uh? Then it will be my time to go.

DAVIS: Just pray to God, I guess. Ain't nothing else.

LIN: What's wrong with leaving? I mean, why stay? Why take the chance?

DAVIS: This is my home. I mean, me and my parents have rode it out just about every other hurricane, except for Opal. We left for that one, but every other one we've stayed. We've had no problems.

LIN: No problems. All right. Well, on that note, Chris, I'm going to have to ask you explain your halfwits T-shirt.

REAGH: It is an old band, when I was in middle school. LIN: All right. Well, I'm going to ask you guys to not be halfwits and keep your head on your shoulders and don't ride out those waves. Because you know what? You don't need those stories to tell later on. Live long and prosper, all right?

DAVIS: All right.

REAGH: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LIN: Chris Reagh, Matt Davis, thanks so much. Stay safe.

Up next, check on other stories making headlines this hour. And following the path of Dennis, you are going to see a live report from Key West, Florida, where the Hurricane left its mark earlier today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LIN: Taking a look now at the headlines, tonight and tomorrow. Late Saturday police in Birmingham, England ordered the evacuation of the city's main entertainment district. They say they received a threat to the area and additional intelligence that triggered the evacuation.

U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops launched an offensive against insurgents near Falluja, capturing 22 suspects. The operation which began Thursday, was just announced. The U.S. military carried out a major campaign in Falluja last November.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the Far East amid word that North Korea will rejoin talks on its nuclear program. That is the focus of Rice's four nation trip which began in Beijing. The six-party talks unsuccessful so far, will start again this month.

And officially, welcome back to your hurricane headquarters, right here at CNN, as we're tracking Hurricane Dennis' path toward the mainland United States. Right now, it is making news by heading further west. It has kind of made a left turn. It is now heading towards Alabama and Mississippi. CNN Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras is reporting now from the Weather Center, on the latest on what the National Hurricane Center is saying about this, Jacqui.

JERAS: Well, Carol, actually it hasn't made quite a turn. It is just the forecast path has shifted a little bit farther to the west. It is not a whole heck of a lot. All the areas that were threatened before are still being threatened at this time. So, I just want to make clear that we haven't seen an actual turn with the hurricane. The forecast path has just shifted ever so slightly off to the left or to the west. And so that brings it in somewhere maybe around Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Still a little questionable, we may see some changes still between now and Sunday afternoon. It is probably going to be maybe mid to late afternoon when we see landfall at this time. We've been talking about all the threats of storm surge and the heavy rain and all the flooding that can be expected, while we also have the threat of tornadoes. We've been showing you that watch across the Florida Peninsula, well now we have a new watch into northern parts of Florida, extends into southern Georgia and also into Alabama.

We had a little bit of action earlier this morning with tornadoes, a few brief touchdowns near the Bradenton/Sarasota area. And now we're getting Doppler radar indicated reports with this line here right along the I-10 corridor. There are tornado warnings in effect for Madison County. That's in the Florida Panhandle, there you can see it right there along I-10. And then also just to the north into southern Georgia and that one is for Brooks County. This a radar indicated tornado moving up to the north and the west around 30 m.p.h., so those are very fast moving storm systems. Also, check out, you can see on our Titan Doppler radar system. This is real-time radar that you're looking at and every time you see a little flash. That's the lightening, that's real-time lightening. So every now and then we're starting to see some of that action.

The rainfall extends so far up to the north. Very heavy in Atlanta earlier this afternoon and evening, but you can see that is starting to dissipate a little bit. We've got showers all the way up into the Carolinas, all the way over into Louisiana.

The statistics on Dennis, if you need to keep yourself up to date, do it right here. We're giving you updates every 15 minutes to keep you informed. Still signs that strengthening is going to continue to stay the same. We are looking at winds of 125. That what it was two hours ago, however, the pressure has dropped a little bit. And we usually see an increase with the wind when we see a drop in pressure. Didn't see that with this next advisory, but still expecting that to happen later on tonight. Probably becoming a Category 4 before you wake up tomorrow morning.

So, winds now, 125 m.p.h. The center of the storm is about 250 miles to the south of Panama City. Now, the tropical storm force winds, that means winds around 39 m.p.h., plus, extend out 230 miles from the center of the storm. Take a look at how close the center of the storm is to you in Panama City. So, we're watching those gusty winds now beginning to make their way onshore. Expecting to see the hurricane force winds and gusts arriving in this area, probably early tomorrow morning, possibly into mid morning.

OK, that little shift that we were talking about to the west, here's the cone. Take a good look at it. Keep in mind, don't focus on this line. Because even if you aren't in the direct path here, everybody in this area is going to be effected by Dennis and none of it, unfortunately is going to be pretty. But right now the best estimate bringing it in somewhere maybe just to the west of Pensacola, to the east of Pascagoula. And we have a very high amount of confidence that it is going to be right within this area where landfall is going to be taking place.

But keep in mind we're getting updates by the minute. We're getting updates every hour on the position, we're getting updates every two hours on the intensity, and we'll watch those updates come closer and closer and closer as Dennis makes its way closer and closer and closer to somewhere in the Florida Panhandle, maybe into southern parts of Alabama -- Carol.

LIN: Hey, Jacqui, right now the forecast is a Category 4, any chance that could go up?

JERAS: Well, I talked to Max Mayfield about that actually earlier tonight. He says he just can't rule it out. Because you have a much more difficult time forecasting the intensity of storms than you do for the forecast track. It's very early in the season to see a hurricane this strong, even at a Category 3. This is the strongest hurricane, by the way, on record in the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico, that we've seen one this early, this strong. So, this is certainly an unusual storm. One we have not had to deal with in the month of July -- Carol.

LIN: Right, in fact, we're going to be hearing from Max Mayfield from the National Hurricane Center in just a moment. Thanks very much Jacqui.

Well, getting back to our main story Hurricane Dennis, it's churning in the Gulf right now, aimed right at the Florida Panhandle as Jacqui was talking about. That's where CNN's John Zarrella is riding out the night -- John.

ZARRELLA: Carol, well we're not riding out much right now, fortunately. It's been quite a nice day here and into the evening hours a little bit of a blustery breeze has begun to kick up.

And probably viewers see behind me Interstate 10, that's across Escambia Bay and may recall a year ago a portion of that bridge was washed out and there was a semi-tractor trailer hanging over the edge of that after Hurricane Ivan. That could well happen again tomorrow when this storm rolls through here.

But the folks here are taking this extremely seriously. And I can tell you that the shelters in Escambia County are beginning to fill up. Earlier today there were about 600 people in them. Late this evening the numbers are up to about 2100. Officials are telling people if you are going to go to the shelters get into those shelters by midnight. And if you are going to evacuate, start evacuations by midnight.

Now, if you are going to a shelter, shelters can be a little bit overwhelming. And for kids, can be a bit scary.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Well, I haven't been to a shelter before, so I get a little scared.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you bring a dolly?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Yes. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does she have a name?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's her name?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Molly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZARRELLA: But the reality is that the shelter is a good place for all of those folks to be if they were in low-lying areas, to get into those shelters.

Now, people were topping off their gas tanks today. Final preparations, a lot of them heading out of town. A lot of them filling up gas cans in preparations for the aftermath of the storm when they're going to be needing to use generators to power their lights in their house, because electricity could be out for a week, perhaps longer than that.

And people were making final preparations. Again, taking it very seriously here. They're not fooling around with this one and this is certainly not the kind of a storm that anyone should be fooling around with, Carol.

LIN: All right. You are absolutely right. Thanks very much, John. John Zarrella reporting live from Pensacola, Florida.

Well no one is busier tonight than officials at the National Hurricane Center, were they are keeping a close eye on Hurricane Dennis. Joining me now is Director Max Mayfield with the latest information on the storm.

Max, I was just talking with Jacqui Jeras, as well as, you know, various officials along the Gulf shores. It appears that the storm track is heading further west. That is still a big worry though for the folks in Pensacola, Florida.

MAX MAYFIELD, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Oh, absolutely, Carol. We've shifted the track ever so slightly to the west there, toward the Alabama coast. But actually, if you look at the forecast track here the red represents our best guess of the area of hurricane force winds and that not only will get the Alabama coast but the extreme western portion of the Florida Panhandle there.

One of the biggest concerns that we have is with the storm surge. Dennis is forecast to become a Category 4 hurricane, which means the storm surge is going to be bumped up now. We're saying 14 to 17 feet. Everything you see here in red is basically 14 to 17 feet, near and to the east of where the center finally crosses the coast.

And right now, that's going to be in the Pensacola Bay area, the Perdido Key area. If the track shifts a little bit more to the left that storm surge will come up into Mobile Bay. It's too close to call yet. All those folks up there that have been told to evacuate, hopefully, have already done so.

LIN: Yes, we have heard that actually most of the people have and that is good news.

Max, can I turn you back to the first graphic you were showing in terms of the hurricane intense winds. Take a look -- explain to us -- all right, when Hurricane Dennis actually makes landfall. Take a look at the geography there, because it looked like, even as it made landfall, the hurricane force wind were going pretty far inland, maybe even towards Montgomery or Meridian?

MAYFIELD: Yes, Carol, if the track is close to being right we could have hurricane force winds extending well inland to Meridian, and even these other -- the yellow areas here represent about 60- m.p.h. winds. And that is certainly enough to knock trees down and cause power outages. We've learned this, relearned it over and over again that a hurricane is not just a coastal event. The strong winds, heavy rains, and the tornadoes can spread well inland. But having said that, the greatest potential for large loss of life is still on the coastline from the storm surge.

LIN: And also the subsequent tornadoes that may follow.

MAYFIELD: That's right.

LIN: Hurricane Ivan, last September, the nature of it, it was an event that lasted some 22 days. So if Hurricane Dennis is as you -- is as intense as you expect that it may be, how is this storm system going to compare in terms of its -- both intensity and its length?

MAYFIELD: Well, right now it is actually stronger than Ivan was when it made landfall. And we think we could see a little more additional strengthening. And it is really important for people to understand that the damage of a hurricane goes up exponentially as the winds increase. So a Category 4 is not just a little bit worse than at Cat 3, it is much, much worse. And then as it moves toward the inland it will likely slow down. The focus will shift more toward the heavy rains here within a couple of days.

LIN: It is forecasted to be a Category 3 -- excuse me, a Category 4 when it makes landfall, so winds in excess of 130 m.p.h. Max, what are the chances that it could be even stronger than that, Category 5?

MAYFIELD: Well, that would be unheard of. Actually, we've never had a Category 4 hurricane make landfall that I know of in the month of July. So, it is already a rare event. We don't really have any computer guidance suggesting that it will be that strong, or you know, a Category 5. We've only had three Category 5 hurricanes to hit the United States in over 100 years. So that would be a very, very rare event. But it certainly is possible for it to become a Category 4.

LIN: Well, Hurricane Dennis is already making history so we'll see what happens. Max Mayfield, thank you very much.

MAYFIELD: Thank you. LIN: Director at the National Hurricane Center.

All right. Still ahead, you are going to hear from the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency about how the government is responding to Dennis. And we are tracing the storm for you throughout the night. So up next, we are going to show you where Dennis is right now. And where it is likely to strike over the next hours.

ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LIN: Welcome back to your hurricane headquarters. Now that we have a better idea of where Hurricane Dennis is heading at this point, the Gulf Shores area, but specifically towards Panama City Beach, Florida. In that general direction. Susan Roesgen is standing by in Panama City Beach, Florida right now.

Susan, we understand that the winds could be kicking up in your area pretty soon. What are you seeing and feeling?

SUSAN ROESGEN, REPORTER, WGNO: It is feeling a little bit chilly tonight. The winds have picked up. I'm actually in Pensacola Beach, in Pensacola, Florida area. And as Jim (sic) Zarrella mentioned just a few minutes ago, the Red Cross has opened several shelters in this area. And as the wind and the waves are starting to get stronger, the shelters are starting to fill up.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN (voice over): This is the Florida dream; to be able to live right along the beach. And the people who do live here are willing to take the risk that comes with that dream.

(On camera): Here's a little snapshot of Pensacola Beach, before Dennis gets here. Right where I'm standing used to be a house, a pretty good-sized one, but Ivan wiped it out. In fact, all over this neighborhood you'll see empty lots that used to be houses.

Let me show you something across the street here. This is one of those old 1950s cinderblock houses. You can see that Ivan did a lot of damage to it. It is still standing, but it isn't livable. So in front of it now is this not-so-great FEMA RV. The government has provided hundreds of these in the Pensacola area for people who aren't able to live in their homes. They're living in these RVs.

Now the guy who lives here says he's going to leave. He's going to evacuate, but he's never really going to leave the beach. People who come out here love this lifestyle. He's just waiting for Dennis to knock out the rest of his house, probably knock out that RV, and then he's going to build again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I bought dog-eared pickets and I just put them all in here and they stayed. So I'm hoping it works again.

ROESGEN: Here's another one of those 1950s cottages. Kathy Gibbs fixed it up and just bought brand new furniture to replace the brand new furniture Ivan ruined. Two hurricanes in less than a year are no match for a woman determined to save her little place on the beach.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, a lot of people would like to see it knocked down and put a big beautiful home, but even if I had $100 million, this is what I want. And I want to keep it just like it is.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN: Now tonight, Kathy and just about everybody else here along the Pensacola Beach area have evacuated. The Red Cross has opened several shelters. At the Pensacola Civic Center, that is probably the biggest one in this area. They have about 570 people tonight. They had about 1200 people there during Hurricane Ivan.

And I spoke to the shelter's manager there at the civic center and she said during Hurricane Ivan they had some minimal structural damage. Not much, a little bit of structural damage. But she said she truly believes that the most that that civic center can handle is a minimal Category 4 hurricane. So she doesn't want to see anything stronger than that. This hurricane, as you have been talking about tonight, should come somewhere possibly between Mobile, which is about 45 minutes to the west of where I'm sitting, between Mobile and the Pensacola area.

But these things do change over night. And, Carol, earlier tonight you were talking about two hurricanes hitting this area, Hurricane Ivan less than 10 months ago, now Hurricane Dennis possibly coming here as well; people here still Hurricanes Opal and Aaron, two hurricanes that came in basically the same area in 1995.

And in some of the bars and the restaurants you will see little plaques that say, "Opal came to this level." The water was this high, or this high. So people here are on the coast have a long collective memory when it comes to hurricanes. Each one is different, in some ways they're the same, but the one thing that doesn't vary is that the storm will vary. They never quite know where it is going to go, so for the next few hours we'll have to see how the track plays out.

LIN: Susan Roesgen, live in Pensacola Beach. Thank you very much.

Time now for the latest on Hurricane Dennis. Let's go to Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras at the CNN Weather Center -- Jacqui.

JERAS: Hey, Carol. We just heard about those changes and if you remember earlier tonight we were talking about it taking a little bit of a jog up to the north, well now we're seeing a little jog to the west. So we do see some of these changes, but it is real common to see little wobbles in the path. You never see and exact straight line that goes on. We see these little waves in them as they go and it looks like we're in the middle of maybe another one of these wobbles as it moves a little bit farther and off to the west.

But hey, that keeps it right on that track, right? With our shift a shift of our track just a little bit farther off to the west and then what we're seeing earlier for this evening.

There you can see that official forecast track. Intensity at a Category 3 with winds of 125 m.p.h. The gusts are going beyond that, throughout this evening. And more intensification is expected. In fact, don't be shocked if we see a Category 4 before all is said and done here for tonight. Before you wake up tomorrow morning that is what we're anticipating at this time.

A best estimate for landfall is going to be tomorrow mid to late afternoon. I'd go as far and say between the hours of maybe 2 and 6 p.m. Eastern Time. So that would be 1 and 5 Central Time, as it looks like this is going to be making landfall into the Central Time Zone. So, please do keep that in mind as well. We have a really neat brand new computer model that we just have in from CNN. And this is from WSIR Weather Vendor. And it is a forecast model of Hurricane Dennis coming in.

Now imagine yourself standing right here on the beach. You are looking out at the Gulf of Mexico. There you can see Mobile, so there's Alabama, and then here is Florida over here with Pensacola. That read dot that you see in the background, that's Dennis.

Here's your time clock, so watch this and watch how the skies change. You see an increase in the cloud cover. Tomorrow morning look at those waves really beginning to pick up. Lots of thunder, lots of lightening, and lots of wind, in fact the hurricane force winds should be arriving sometime early tomorrow morning. The official forecast has it as a possible Category 4 with winds of 140 m.p.h. So that is right in the middle of Category 4 status and big concerns about this storm surge, 13 to 18 feet. And if this goes a little farther west, still, watch out Mobile Bay. We could have some huge problems there.

We'll keep you up to date.

LIN: Good job.

JERAS: Bonnie Schneider, Carol, is in next. I'm signing off.

LIN: All right. Good job, Jacqui. Long day for you and tomorrow, that's going to be it.

JERAS: I'll be back.

LIN: You bet. All right. Jacqui Jeras, thank you very much.

Well, for the residents of Florida, the Florida Keys, hurricanes come with the territory. Up next, a report on how the city of Key West is dealing with what Dennis dished out yesterday.

ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters. LIN: And good evening, I'm Carol Lin. And here's a quick look at what's happening "Now in the News". This is other news, other than Hurricane Dennis, which we're still following.

North Korea says it will return to six-nation talks aimed at ending a standoff over its nuclear program. The talks will begin in about two weeks. North Korea announced its decision after one of its officials met with a U.S. diplomat in China.

And near Fallujah, Iraqi security forces and U.S. Marines launch an offensive against rebels. Twenty-two insurgent suspects have been detained in the operation, which began Thursday. The U.S. military carried out a major offensive in Falluja last November.

And in London police now say a three subway -- three of the subway explosions on Thursday occurred within seconds of one another, not minutes, as earlier reported. Now, the significance of this is that it probably means the bombs were detonated by timing devices and not triggered by suicide bombers.

We're going to take a quick break. And we are going to come back as your hurricane headquarters, right here at CNN, the latest on Hurricane Dennis.

ANNOUNCER: CNN, your hurricane headquarters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LIN: It is approaching midnight on the East Coast, 11 p.m. on the Alabama Gulf Coast. You are tuned into your hurricane headquarters, CNN.

Dennis is now stronger than ever. Upgraded to a Category 3 storm, within the past few hours; it has also changed direction slightly. The hurricane's current position, and track, in just a moment, but first we want to show you some pictures of Pensacola, Florida. It is relatively calm there right now. But they don't call it the calm before the storm for nothing.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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