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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

The Wrath of Hurricane Dennis

Aired July 10, 2005 - 18:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's falling apart! Get back! Get back! Get back!

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Unbelievable. I've never seen anything like this, John. This is -- have you ever seen anything like this?

ZARRELLA: Never seen anything like this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Facing the wrath of Hurricane Dennis, moving ashore, demolishing things in its path along the Gulf coast. Live reports across the region, that's coming up.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The tell-tale hurricane signs, as the waves slam ashore. Some residents worry about the homes they left behind while others hunker down and stay. We're going to talk to them this hour.

And something you'll only see on CNN. We're going into the eye of the hurricane with our mobile hurricane unit and Rick Sanchez. So stay tuned. We're live from your hurricane headquarters.

From the CNN Center in Atlanta, hello, everyone, I'm Kyra Phillips.

BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're continuing our special coverage of Hurricane Dennis. And we begin with these pictures from Pensacola, Florida. Hurricane Dennis, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the Gulf coast. And you can count on CNN as your hurricane headquarters.

We have reporters all along the coast following the storm. John Zarrella and Anderson Cooper are in Pensacola, Florida. Alina Cho is in Mary Esther, Florida, near Fort Walton. Chad Myers is in Panama City, Florida.

Dennis came ashore as a Category 3 storm east of Pensacola, Florida, on Santa Rosa Island. Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Anderson Cooper and John Zarrella who've been riding out the storm in Pensacola.

It's a lot calmer now than it was just a little while ago, Anderson. ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR/CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, it certainly is. It was quite a ride for both of us. Let's just show you a little clip of really the height of the storm, what it looked like.

We were basically about 500 or so feet away from where we are now, sort of cowering behind a wall at the Ramada Hotel. Let's take a look at what it looked like.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: We're back on the air, John Zarrella and I. Let me just explain where we are. We're basically seeking the safety of a Ramada Hotel. There is two walls behind our camera, and we are all basically kind of clustered behind these walls for safety.

And if you look just out there, that is an enormous Ramada sign, which has just been twisting in the wind. As you can see, I mean, it is moving. That is a big concern. We are very afraid that that thing could just come down.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's been spinning around like a top. And really what we're experiencing right now is a little bit of a lull compared to what we had. The gusts before were well above hurricane force. It had to be in the 95-, 100-mile-an-hour range.

COOPER: Five minutes ago, I don't know how much -- when I called in, I don't know how much of that you could get. But it has actually gone down from that point. I mean, that was really -- it was this extraordinary wall of white. It was like a solid mass.

ZARRELLA: You couldn't see a thing out there. And the trees were bent, as they're bending again now. We're starting to get another one of those...

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Yes, and look at the tops of those trees over there. You've seen some of them have snapped already. But these things are moving. And as these bands of the storm come in...

ZARRELLA: Here it comes again. Look out here!

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: I don't know if you can feel right it now...

(CROSSTALK)

ZARRELLA: Watch out for that aluminum! Jump! Get back, get back! It's coming apart!

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Look over there! ZARRELLA: It's coming apart!

COOPER: That is aluminum. That's part of the sign. Look at this!

ZARRELLA: Look at this, it's all coming apart! The trees are coming down!

COOPER: Did you see that tree that went down?

ZARRELLA: Big trees coming down. Big trees coming down.

COOPER: Be very careful. Look at that sign...

(CROSSTALK)

ZARRELLA: If that's a sign, it's down. It's falling apart! Get back! Get back! Get back!

COOPER: Unbelievable. I've never seen anything like this, John. This is -- have you ever seen anything like this?

ZARRELLA: Never seen anything like this. I've never experienced anything like this before.

COOPER: I'm telling you, this, of course, is the most dangerous time when the winds are this strong.

ZARRELLA: Tree limbs are flying down these pine trees. You see them out there. They got big branches coming down, huge limbs.

COOPER: And it's incredible when you think -- I mean, these are strong pieces of metal. This is not, you know, little tin. This is a huge, metal sign that survived Hurricane Ivan. It has not survived Hurricane Dennis.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: And that was the scene about an hour, hour-and-a-half ago. You're now looking at a live shot of the sign. That was the sign which survived Hurricane Ivan, John.

ZARRELLA: Yes, it really did. And it just -- it goes to show you that you just never know. Some things will stay up in one hurricane, and then the wind hits something from a different direction, or weakens the structure from a year ago, and now it's brought down.

COOPER: We spent the start of the hurricane underneath or around actually where we are now, but very close to an overhanging part of a gas station. And we thought that was going to maybe get lost in the storm, but that...

(CROSSTALK) ZARRELLA: That survived.

COLMES: And the sign, which had survived Ivan, which we thought was going to be OK, that was brought down. So you never know, as John said, those winds, you know, they change direction.

We were here, and all of a sudden the wind changed direction. Our satellite truck went down. We literally, John and I, ran across the street to that other location where we had another satellite truck all set up. But it was some hairy moments there.

ZARRELLA: One important thing to note. Curfew in effect starting here 6:00 p.m. local time until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. And we've seen a lot of police officers, state troopers, out already beginning to start to enforcing that.

COOPER: Yes, and Wolf, and a lot of people we're seeing, you know, sort of happy to be able to get out of their homes. They're coming out. They're driving on the roads again. And it's still a dangerous time.

There's a lot of water on the ground, probably a lot of power lines down, as well. So people still need to be careful -- Wolf?

BLITZER: ... from the mayor of Pensacola was, "Stay put." And that is good advice.

Guys, we'll get back to you shortly.

PHILLIPS: And Wolf, Anderson, and John, we're talking about how things can be really calm and then get very chaotic and back and forth. Now we want to go back to Panama City, Florida, which would normally be packed with people this time of year. It had calmed down, but as you can see, conditions picking up again.

Chad Myers, once again, right in the middle of it. Hopefully we'll be able to keep that signal with you, Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: (INAUDIBLE) I'm not sure (INAUDIBLE)

PHILLIPS: All right, we're having a hard time getting that signal. Of course, things are picking up there in Panama Beach. We'll try and get Chad back once the conditions calm down just a bit.

Let's go now to CNN's Rick Sanchez. He's been on the move throughout the day in our mobile hurricane unit. We're calling it Hurricane One. He joins us now live via vidphone.

Rick, tell us where you are exactly now. And also, if you don't mind, the last time we saw this type of operation was during the war. So explain to viewers how you're able to travel like this and bring us these live shots.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's interesting. What we've done is converted a satellite -- we often call it a bubble. We're calling it Hurricane One for the purposes of following this storm. But it gives us the ability to actual travel down the road while still providing you with a shot. Essentially, remaining mobile, which is something that's, as far as we know, has never been phone, at least not in conditions like these, with either a severe tropical storm or a hurricane.

There's only so many winds that something like this can actually hold up to. But we can actually show it -- Michael, when you get a chance when you get over to the side of this bridge, pull over. We're going to go ahead and get a shot of the bubble so they can see it.

In the meantime, I'll tell you what the conditions are here. The maximum force winds seem to have left this quadrant of western edge of Florida, what we often refer to as the Panhandle down here. And it's heading into Alabama.

They're worried now, though, Kyra -- and that's what often happens in situations like this -- that people will start to feel like they can go outside. And this is when you often get some of the strongest tornadic activity. And that's why people in the shelters are having a real tough time keeping the folks who went there inside, because they feel like they've been there since last night. They're cooped up. They want to get out.

Let's do this, though. Before we start the report, I want to take you back now to the last place we were when we first started filing a report. We came to this area called Crestview, because we heard that there was an Econolodge here that the roof had been blown off of, had literally just scraped off the top.

And then, while we were there, it continued to pull off. Let's show some of those pictures now, if we possibly can. And you'll see exactly what we're talking about. It's really quite amazing to see.

This entire roof, which was described to us by some of the folks who were there -- 100 people inside that building at the time that this happened, by the way -- had just suddenly started to pull. They saw a hole, and then the wind got underneath it, and it pulled it off.

When we got there, and as we were there, what was remaining was yanked off itself and fell on the other side, fell on some power lines. The fire department showed up, as did rescue officials, because they were concerned that it could start a fire.

Now, what do you do with the people who are inside that building? Well, what they did was -- first, they tried to take them over to the high school. But that was so full -- in fact, we've got some pictures of that as well. Let's do this. Let's show you now some pictures inside the high school of the shelter itself. And you might be able to see just -- it's a little uncomfortable. The conditions are somewhat cramped. And you'll see for yourself that it was very difficult for some of the people inside there.

Well, Kyra, I'm getting a wrap. So I'll try and get back to you later and show you exactly how the bubble works and how the technology inside here works. We are heading toward the state of Alabama now from Florida as we continue to follow the track of Hurricane Dennis.

PHILLIPS: Rick Sanchez, once again, live from Hurricane Dennis there, our mobile unit as he's moving from Crestview along to other small cities throughout Florida. Rick, we'll continue to check in. Thanks.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Let's immediately go to CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras who's got some new developments -- Jacqui?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, more possible tornados, Wolf. We've got some new warnings. And they've just extended the Escambia County, Alabama, tornado warning. This is a Doppler radar indicated tornado, but showing very strong signs of rotation on Doppler radar.

We told you a few moments ago about the one in DeKalb County, Georgia. That includes the Atlanta metro area. Well, Fulton County is now also under a tornado warning. We have not seen the ground truth on this yet, but we were just looking at Doppler radar and looking at the velocities in here, and it looks very good for strong rotation.

This possible tornado is right near Turner Field right now and it's pushing up to the north and to the west, so this includes downtown Atlanta, a very dangerous situation right now. You need to take cover now, get to the lowest level of your home or building, get away from doors and windows.

If you're in an office building, right here at CNN, I want all the employees, if you're available, guys, get into the interior part of the building. Get to maybe a stairwell. That is a safe place to be.

It's tough to see the tornados in these kind of conditions because there's a lot of rain usually associated with them. So again, tornado warning, including you in downtown Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties, both. You need to be taking cover immediately.

Now, some of these outer bands are really starting to pick up quite a bit. We're seeing some very heavy rainfall. We'll watch for that to continue to be strong in intensity as the storm system tracks up on to the north and to the west, probably down to a tropical storm yet tonight.

But the flooding concerns really kicking in later on in the forecast period, as we see this system stall out into parts of Tennessee and into the Ohio River Valley. I'm going to get to my other radar picture here, and I want to show you some of the outer bands that are kicking in at this hour and where the tornado watches are in effect.

This is starting to move into the Panama City area right now. And that's just where Chad Myers is. Maybe 50- to 60-mile-per-hour wind gusts could be heading your way. Chad, how is it looking there right now?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It has gone downhill significantly, as the old cliche goes, Jacqui. About ten minutes ago, I was joking to the guys. I said, "You know, it's about time we take off this rain gear because we're probably in pretty good shape now." And then, all of a sudden, you can see this squall coming in.

And I'm going to pick up my anemometer here. I'm going to give you a chance to actually read the wind live right on the air. Fifty- seven miles an hour on that last gust.

Now, what we are still seeing -- and what I'm tasting -- are winds off the ocean. And you say, how can you taste the wind? I can taste the salt that's coming out of the ocean. Not the saltwater. It is not raining saltwater. Got into a little bit of a shadow of the building there.

It is not raining saltwater. The ocean is actually getting churned up by this wind. The waves are getting chopped off the top. Those waves, the top of those waves, all of that mist and spray is all salt. That salt gets picked up by the water and it comes down on the ground.

Now, the rain that comes out of a hurricane is not saltwater. It's fresh water, because of the distillation process. The ocean gives up its H20. Pure water goes up into the storm and it rains down as fresh water.

A lot of people ask me, is this a saltwater storm? No. It tastes salty because the water's coming off the top.

Now, let me get down here. I want to get down here so you can kind of get a feel for how big the waves really are. About, oh, I don't know, four hours ago, we could walk out another 150 yards. But to get a feel for, well, how small I am compared to how big the ocean is -- now, look how far the water's going out.

The water's going out here 100, 150 feet. And then all of a sudden to the next storm surge -- and then look at that one coming in way out there. And you can see the debris in the water. The next little wave will come in and it will bring that water right back up to the top here.

And it's taking away a lot of sand. I've been noticing the erosion here of the beach. And they did a huge beach restoration project years ago, millions of dollars. And I'm afraid they're losing a lot of that sand today.

JERAS: Yes, Chad, I'm not your mother, but I don't like seeing you walking that far out in the water. You still have that onshore flow going on there.

MYERS: I do know that. But I'll tell you what, I've got people watching my back. And the whole thing, the whole time coming -- I said this earlier -- never turn your back on the camera. But the biggest, biggest rule, never turn your back on Mother Nature. Never turn your back on the ocean. So I'm getting out right now.

Jacqui, back to you.

JERAS: Hey, Chad, one more question for you. Can I ask you one more question?

MYERS: Yep. Sure, go ahead.

JERAS: How is this comparing to what you saw just a couple of hours ago?

MYERS: You know, it's different, Jacqui, because the wind was blowing along the shore. It was a long shore flow. And there are just -- well, you can kind of pan this way. Take the camera, take it off there. There are so many very tall condos, they actually got in the way of our wind speed.

Now that flag -- maybe you can see that yellow flag -- it has turned more onshore. So we're not seeing that wind shadow from the big condos anymore. And I think the winds have actually picked up from when Anderson had his heaviest winds. Our bigger winds have been now.

Right now, I'm standing in a shadow of another little building here, but as soon as I walk out, you saw what the winds were like over there, at least 55 to 60 miles an hour still. And that's the problem.

You know, you lose one shingle, and then it blows like this for so many hours, another shingle comes, another shingle comes, and by the -- you know, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, you've lost the whole roof.

JERAS: Have you been around the area at all and seen much for damage?

MYERS: You know, I got out, and I went down into basically Panama City Beach. It held up very well. But that's, again, because it was in the shadow of the wind field here of the condos.

I'm afraid, as I go down the beach, or west into the beach toward Panama City, and also to Fort Walton and into Destin, there's going to be a lot more damage there, many, more lower buildings, not as much protection from these well-built -- these are bunkers. These concrete condominiums here are bunkers. People are still in them. They decided not to leave, because they know they're so safe.

JERAS: All right. Well, still some squalls heading your way, Chad, so keep it safe out there. Thanks very much.

MYERS: I will. Thank you.

JERAS: Chad Myers in Panama City.

And Wolf Blitzer, coming back with us right now -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Jacqui, a quick question for you. And a lot of our viewers probably will be a little bit confused. The eye of the hurricane hit near Pensacola. Panama City, where Chad is, seems to be much worse right now than Pensacola is...

JERAS: Right.

BLITZER: ... where Anderson Cooper and John Zarrella are. Why is that?

JERAS: Well, the eye's already pushed up to the north of Pensacola. And it's the east and northern side of the storm where the worst of the conditions are. What Chad is experiencing right now -- here's Panama City. We've got a little squall line developing.

We talk about the outer bands. And within these lines of thunderstorms, we tend to get increases in wind speed. So wind gusts of 50, maybe 60 miles per hour will come at times. It's not going to be consistent, like when the whole hurricane makes landfall.

But you're going to start to see those gusty winds picking up. And the wind flow is still coming in from the south at this time, so that helps to push up that water. And that's why those waves are still coming up, because the wind is pushing it up -- Wolf?

BLITZER: And I know Kyra wants to talk about something much closer to home for her here in Atlanta, the tornados.

PHILLIPS: Right. Jacqui, I was saying Wolf is very lucky that he doesn't live here on a regular basis because we have to deal with this when this type of severe weather comes in.

I just got off the home from with my husband and he -- we're trying to work on a web cam, by the way, of the Atlanta area. And you were saying that DeKalb County, Fulton County, downtown Atlanta, right through Turner Center, has a tornado warming.

My husband told me it's already getting pitch black. The winds are picking up. The rain has started something fierce. As a matter of fact, all the neighbors are coming over to our house because we have a pretty deep basement.

So from what you can see there, how is it looking? And maybe you could give folks some words of instruction here? Is it time to get into the basement? At what point do you, you know, take cover?

JERAS: It's time to get in the basement. The warnings issued. That means either one's been spotted or very strongly indicated on radar, which means it could drop out at any given time. I haven't heard any reports of an actual touchdown.

But meteorologist Sean Morris (ph), our producer here and I, were looking at the velocity or the wind speed in this. And we are seeing strong inflow and strong outflow right over the downtown Atlanta area. It's right near Turner Field, probably getting close to maybe even the CNN Center area at this time.

You can see it's pushing up to the north and to the west. And again, you might not even see this, because there's a lot of heavy rain with it. And the skies are so very black. So you do need to be taking cover right now if you're in the downtown Atlanta area, if you're in the Druid Hills area. You need to be taking cover.

I believe, actually, the DeKalb County should have expired at 6:15. So I think we're still just dealing with Fulton County at this time. You want to get to the lowest level of your home. Get away from doors and windows.

If you don't have a basement, if you have an interior bathroom, that's a great place to be, just hop right in the tub if you can. Grab maybe a blanket or a mattress or something and put that over the top of you. But you need to be taking cover right at this time.

If we get any reports of any damage or any actual touchdowns, of course, we will bring those right along to you -- Kyra?

PHILLIPS: All right, Jacqui, thank you so much. Stay with us as we continue to follow these tornado warnings now here in the Atlanta, Georgia, area.

And of course, you can be monitoring your local news stations, too. They've got immediate warnings.

Meanwhile, we're going to go back to Chad Myers, right?

BLITZER: Let's go back to Chad Myers. He's in Panama City.

What's the latest there, Chad?

MYERS: Well, you know, we were talking about the potential for these tornados really hours ago. As the eye wall moves onshore, as the right front quadrant of the storm encounters the topography of the land, that land begins to slow down the bottom of the...

BLITZER: It looks like we're breaking up that satellite picture with Chad Myers, our meteorologist in Panama City. That's to be expected, technological problems in the aftermath of a hurricane.

PHILLIPS: We've been dealing with that many-a-times throughout the day today.

BLITZER: It's amazing how good the reception has been so far. I've been very impressed.

PHILLIPS: Well, and the fact, too, we've got Rick Sanchez on the mobile unit. He's able to sort of move across -- he hasn't had any problems yet. He's been able to bring us live pictures as he goes from city to city. He's now in Crestview, Florida.

Chad, it looks like, though, has the hairiest conditions of all our correspondents, those heavy winds knocking out that signal.

BLITZER: And just because it's relatively calm in certain areas where we have cameras, that doesn't mean it's calm all over the place. It's still very, very dangerous out there, and potentially very deadly.

PHILLIPS: And of course, we're following all the tornado warnings. Jacqui Jeras mentioned a tornado warning in DeKalb County. She said that is now expired. That's here in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. She said now in Escambia County in Alabama and Fulton County here in Atlanta, Georgia, there are still tornado warnings, so strong, she said, that it is time to get into the basement, if indeed it's dark outside. You're seeing the rains and the winds pick up, head to the basement and get away from windows.

BLITZER: And to our viewers, if you're anywhere in the affected area of -- anywhere in the affected area of Hurricane Dennis, e-mail us your pictures of the storm damage. Our address: CNN.com/hurricane. As our citizen journalists will tell you what we tell our camera crews, don't -- repeat, don't -- do anything risky. Your safety is key.

Our team coverage continues as the Gulf Coast is battered by Hurricane Dennis. We'll have live reports all along the coast right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: A spin-off, a spin-off from Hurricane Dennis. Tornado warnings right here where we are at the CNN Center in Atlanta, Georgia. This is by no means unusual. It happens, Kyra. Once there's a hurricane, tornados are almost certain to follow.

PHILLIPS: And we're seeing it right now with our live pictures from one of our affiliates here in Atlanta, Georgia, via WSB. This is our Web cam. Or I'm sorry, it's the camera they have atop their station. Forgive me. And it's giving us a bit of a wide shot, you can see here, of downtown Atlanta area.

You can see that the winds and the rain obviously picking up. But, Wolf, this is something living here. You're very lucky to be in D.C. because you sort of -- it becomes a way of life, as we've been talking to folks throughout Alabama and Florida, too.

But I can tell you, for the past 48 hours, my neighbors in Fulton County where this tornado warning is, they've been buying cement bags and sandbags and gearing up, because we've learned valuable lessons from the last storm. Even our basement got flooded, and we lost so many valuable things. We never expected that it'd get so intense.

This picture coming to us now, a live picture. This is our airport here in Atlanta, Georgia. These pictures coming to us via WAGA in Atlanta, Georgia. All of our affiliates working these live shots for us. As a matter of fact, we should find out the status of those flights, Wolf.

BLITZER: I suspect, if there's a lot of tornados there, at least tornado warnings, those flights are not going to be going along.

But let's check in with CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras who knows a lot more about this than I do. JERAS: Yes, actually, I just saw a plane on one of the taxiways there. I've got Sean Morris (ph), our producer, he's checking the FAA Web site right now to see what kind of delays or if there's a ground stop in effect in Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport or not.

I do have some good news to report. Even though we still have a tornado warning in effect for Fulton County right now, we're just checking velocity on our Doppler radar. And it looks like the rotation has weakened significantly. The warning is set to expire at 6:30 Eastern time. And I would expect that they will not reissue a tornado warning.

So we still have a few minutes. It's still an ominous storm. You can still expect to see gusty winds associated with this, and maybe even a little bit of small hail, according to the National Weather System. And their discussion there -- the possible tornado here is moving up to the north and to the west at a pretty rapid pace, about 35 miles per hour.

And this just coming in from Sean out at the airport, about an- hour-and-30-minute delays out of Atlanta right now. You could expect delays likely out of the airport there throughout much of the night tonight and probably even lingering into tomorrow. A lot of big airport hubs are going to be affected by Dennis, not just here in Atlanta. We're going to see problems likely into Birmingham, into Montgomery. You're going to see problems likely into Memphis, maybe Nashville, even into Cincinnati as we head into tomorrow.

So a lot of air travel is going to be a problem, not to mention the ground travel. If you're trying to get out and about today, this is not the day to do it. Flooding is going to be a big concern inland.

You can see the showers and thunderstorms and how far out that they reach. And I want you to keep in mind that a lot of times when you're traveling you come across some water over the road, you can't tell how deep it is. Turn around, don't drown. More people are killed that way almost than any other weather-related incident.

So be aware that this is going to be ongoing threat with the flooding. So, again, just another minute, I think, left in this tornado warning for Fulton County. It's looking a little less ominous at this hour.

BLITZER: Jacqui, I've always associated tornado with rural areas, but downtown Atlanta, how unusual is that to have a tornado warning in a huge city like Atlanta?

JERAS: Yes, that myth not untrue, or not true. You always hear, "Oh, it never hits downtown, or it always skips over a river." Those are all myths. Remember, we had -- Salt Lake City had a tornado. Dallas-Fort Worth had a tornado, and we potentially could have one right here right now in Atlanta.

BLITZER: Jacqui Jeras helping us understand what's going on. Jacqui, thank you very much. Hurricane Dennis came ashore on Santa Rosa Island. That's east of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. CNN's Alina Cho is joining us now from Mary Esther. That's not very far away from Fort Walton. Alina's on the phone.

What's it like there, Alina?

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what a difference a few hours makes. The last time I was on the air, the hurricane was coming right through our area. Now the rain has stopped, the winds have died down significantly.

And Okaloosa County, officials say that assessment teams are out and about right now assessing the damage. But the initial report is that the county fared very well. In fact, one official told me much better than they did during Hurricane Ivan just ten months ago.

As far as they know, at this point, no injuries, no fatalities to report. They say the biggest damage reports so far, so far, are trees down and shingles down. We can tell you that Highway 98, that highway we've been hearing about all throughout the day, a four-mile stretch of that highway between Fort Walton Beach and Destin, Florida, is still closed.

Also, all of the bridges in Okaloosa County are closed except for one bridge, and the one bridge that is opened, it's only open to emergency vehicles. But officials will say that the worst appears to be over. And right now, they are just hoping for the best.

BLITZER: All right, let's hope for the best. Alina Cho on the phone for us from Mary Esther, that's near Fort Walton. Thank you, Alina, very much.

Kyra, as we watch this, the aftermath of this, and I constantly want to remind our viewers that, even though the worst is over in some areas, the worst is yet to come in many other areas.

PHILLIPS: And we're continuing to follow. We've got correspondence all throughout Florida, all through Alabama. We've got the latest now on Hurricane Dennis. Here are the facts we've put together so far.

The storm has slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Santa Rosa Island just a few hours ago. And this is just some of the damage that it caused. Homes torn apart, power lines down, and trees flattened. And when Dennis came ashore, it was a Category 3 storm that you'll remember, carrying about 120-mile-an-hour winds.

Tens of thousands of Floridians are without power right now. But fortunately, so far, there are no reports of death or injuries, possibly because so many people heeded warnings and evacuated or went to shelters.

BLITZER: A lot of our viewers, of course, will remember former CNN correspondent Jeff Flock. He's joining us right now.

Jeff, where are you right now?

JEFF FLOCK, FORMER CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I am where the hurricane is now. I'm in a town called Flomaton, Alabama, which is a small town just over the Alabama state line from Florida. We've been tracking this storm -- I work -- I'm doing some work with a Web site called hurricanenow.com.

And we've been tracking this storm. It started this morning along the coast. And of course, you know, the damage is bad in places like Pensacola. I know you've got a lot of pictures of that. But we have been spotting a lot of damage running up Highway 29 all the way north into Alabama.

A lot of trees down along there. Structural damage to smaller homes and mobile homes. And right where we are right now, the winds still blowing very hard in this situation.

So I'm having fun out here, still doing hurricanes like I always used to love at CNN. And in fact, we started our day of the town of Gulf Shores, Alabama, where we weathered Hurricane Ivan last year. And I filed a report earlier today on the Web site. I think we'll take a look at that now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLOCK: We have finally gotten ourselves in a situation where we think we are safe. We are finally in a parking garage, a steel and concrete structure, that's a little bit taller. We were concerned about the storm surge at the other garage we were at that was only up one floor. This one's up much higher, and it gives us much more protection.

As you can see, if you step out of it at all, the conditions are very, very difficult.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FLOCK: You know, we were concerned, Wolf and Kyra, this morning when it looked like a Category 4 storm. And the earlier track had it coming right over Mobile Bay, which would have taken us in Gulf Shores, right in that upper-right-front quadrant, which would have been the worst of the storm. So we were concerned early in the morning. But then, fortunately, it swung a little bit east.

BLITZER: Jeff, it wouldn't be a hurricane if Jeff Flock weren't there. Tell us exactly what you're doing. You're chasing this hurricane? Did I hear you correctly?

FLOCK: Yes. The Web site is hurricanenow.com. And the idea is to provide -- you know, I was frustrated sometimes, despite all the great airtime I got from you and others -- that we wanted to bring a hurricane in real-time, communicate it in real-time without cutting away, but just stay and watch.

And what we do is we stream live pictures of the hurricane, and we did several hours today, so that we watched the storm unfold just as it came onshore. And it's really fascinating to watch this storm, because sometimes you miss -- you know, if you do a minute-and-a-half TV report, you miss some of the great gusts of wind and some of the other features of the storm.

So this -- if you're on the air for 15, 20 minutes, you'd be surprised what happens out there.

BLITZER: So what kind of vehicle are you using to drive into this hurricane, or at least follow the hurricane as it moves inland?

FLOCK: We have multiple teams. We have some of the teams with meteorological equipment on the roof, you know, anemometers and pressure gages, and that sort of thing. I am just in a regular -- not to give them a plug, but a Ford Explorer right at the moment. And you know, we've had to dry around different power lines down. We just hit a power line. And fortunately, most of the power has been cut, even in this area. Because of course, this was the track all along.

BLITZER: So give us your bottom-line assessment before I let you go. And we'll be getting back with you later tonight, Jeff. Give us your assessment of this hurricane, Hurricane Dennis, compared to all the other hurricanes you've watched over these many years.

FLOCK: Two things I would say. One, I have never heard the Hurricane Center describe a hurricane as "insane." And they said that the intensification, rapid intensification was "insane." And that really scared us, especially when it got up to Category 4.

But the reality of it is, a very tight storm, a very powerful storm, but a very small storm. So even though it's done a lot of damage, it's done it in a reasonably small area, although it continues now up through here. I don't know if you can hear that wind howling behind me in the background, but it's still doing damage as we speak.

BLITZER: And where exactly are you again, Jeff, right now?

FLOCK: A little town called Flomaton, Alabama, which is just over the Florida line into Alabama, north -- from the coast about 40 miles.

BLITZER: You have any sense how fast those winds are where you are?

FLOCK: You know, I don't have the meteorological gear with me right now. And you know, these huge trees -- it's not like it is on the coast, you know, when you get damage to structures and that sort of thing in palm trees. These are huge oak trees that are bending in the wind. It's interesting to watch.

BLITZER: Jeff Flock is helping us better cover this hurricane, as he always has. Jeff, thanks very much. We'll be getting back to Jeff Flock.

And as I said, Kyra, it wouldn't be a hurricane if Jeff Flock were not on CNN.

PHILLIPS: He has brought us some of the most amazing pictures, that is for sure.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

PHILLIPS: We continue to follow our breaking news now, with a the breaks news with a number of tornado warnings coming through. The one in DeKalb County here in Georgia expired, but there was another one still lingering in Fulton County.

Let's go straight to Jacqui Jeras in the Weather Center. I'm being told there are more now in Alabama -- Jacqui?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, they've all been expired for the Atlanta metro area at this time. We have new tornado warnings that have just been issued now for Monroe and Baldwin counties in Alabama.

Here you can see the Florida panhandle. There you can see southern Alabama. And this right here, this is I-65. And where the rotation is, it's just to the north of I-65 where these counties meet. A tornado was reported earlier from this storm when it was in Escambia County. It was reported near Porch (ph). But we don't have any reports of any damage from that.

So this is a radar-indicated tornado, but it has a history of producing a tornado and touching down. So this warning is in effect. It should actually be 6:15 Central time, 7:15 Eastern time. So be aware that we've had ground truth now, tornado touchdown in Alabama. And there are warnings in effect for Monroe and Baldwin County.

And I'm sure we'll continue to get more of these as we head through the night. And the areas that are vulnerable right here, where we have the watches in effect, all across southern Alabama, kind of clipping into parts of Mississippi, into the Florida Panhandle, and all across southern parts of Georgia -- Wolf, Kyra?

PHILLIPS: All right, Jacqui Jeras, bringing us the latest on the tornados throughout what it looks like Alabama right now. We continue to keep in touch with you, Jacqui.

And several CNN viewers have become a part of our coverage of Hurricane Dennis as citizen journalists. We want to thank you very much. And keep the pictures coming.

Bob in Panama City Beach, Florida, took this picture of the Summit condo complex. And as you can see, water is lapping up next to the building there. He also sent this picture of the Summit, the surface actually crashing onto the pool deck there. Thank you so much for sending those in, Bob.

E-mail us your pictures, if you're in the affected area of Hurricane Dennis. Our address, of course, CNN.com/hurricane. And just a reminder, please don't do anything risky. We just want you to be safe.

BLITZER: It's been a very powerful storm. And it's still a powerful storm. We're going to continue to track Dennis here at CNN Hurricane Headquarters.

We're also standing by, Anderson Cooper, John Zarrella. They're out there. We'll go back to them right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. It's been about three hours now since Hurricane Dennis slammed into the western Florida panhandle, a Category 3 with winds of about 120 miles an hour. It's been downgraded to a Category 2 now, with winds of about 105. But that's expected to go down.

One problem, though, Kyra, as we've been reporting, tornados, the natural outgrowth of these hurricanes.

PHILLIPS: And the good news is, there were a couple of tornado warnings here in the Georgia area, but those have expired. No longer in DeKalb County or Fulton County. Just right now, Jacqui Jeras talking about the threat of tornados in Escambia County, Alabama and Baldwin County, Alabama.

Now, we want to continue our coverage. Of course, we're going to check in with John Zarrella and Anderson Cooper in just a minute in Pensacola, Florida.

BLITZER: Before we do that, though, we want to bring in Michael Brown, the FEMA director, who's joining us now from FEMA Headquarters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C. It's now part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Brown, thanks very much for joining us. Give us your assessment. What has happened so far from the perspective of damage?

MICHAEL BROWN, FEMA DIRECTOR: Well, we actually are sending our rapid needs assessment teams in right now. I'm down at the Hurricane Center in Miami. We've been getting the reports here of power outages, just the things that you've been reporting.

So what we're doing right now is focusing on our life-saving and life-rescue efforts to make sure that we get everybody out that maybe has been caught in the storm, start figuring out what kind of damage has occurred, and start that kind of response.

President Bush called me just a few minutes ago. He has declared portions of Florida a major disaster area, and including parts of Alabama and Mississippi. So we'll start working to help individuals immediately.

BLITZER: What does that mean, now that the president has formally declared major disaster areas for parts of Florida, and Mississippi, and Alabama, in practical terms, for the people who live there?

BROWN: It means that, one, we'll be able to help them financially. We'll be able to start getting them temporary housing and shelter if they need. We'll start being able to help the states and localities in particular with some of the costs associated with their first response.

We don't want them worrying about costs and budget constraints. We want them to do everything they can to get commodities, the meals ready to eat, the food, the ice and the water in to sustain life. We don't want any more loss of life. We want people to be safe and get back to normal as quickly as possible.

BLITZER: Do you have any immediate reports? It's been three hours since Hurricane Dennis slammed ashore. Any immediate reports of casualties, injuries, fatalities?

BROWN: We don't. We'll just start getting those reports sometime, I would hope, in the next hour or so, but nothing so far.

BLITZER: Is this hurricane worse than you expected, about what you expected, or less than you expected?

BROWN: Well, I never get in the habit of talking about disasters, because if you're the one individual involved in that disaster, it's the worst ever for you. So what we find here is, is that this hurricane had a smaller area of devastation than we expected, which is the good news.

But as you guys have been reporting, the bad news is it's continued to do what hurricanes do, causing flooding, causing tornados, causing the downed power lines and trees, and that sort of thing. So the damage is going to continue to extend further inland. In fact, I expect to see flooding all the way up perhaps into the Ohio Valley, depending on how much of these bands end up actually staying together.

BLITZER: Correct me if I'm wrong, Mr. Brown, but FEMA is still cleaning up, if you will, from the four hurricanes that slammed Florida and parts of the southeast last year. And now you're about to get ready to gear up for this one.

BROWN: Wolf, you're exactly right. Both myself and President Bush made a promise to Floridians and Alabamans and others last year that we would stay as long as it takes. And I'm renewing that promise again today. We'll be here as long as it takes.

Right in Escambia County and other areas in the Florida Panhandle, I had over 3,000 people living in temporary housing provided by FEMA. Some of those may be gone. We have to replenish those.

We'll probably have new people that will need temporary housing. We're going to do all of those things. Our commitment is to do whatever it takes to give people that opportunity to at least start rebuilding their lives.

BLITZER: All right, Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, joining us from the FEMA office in Miami. Good luck to you, Mr. Brown. Good luck to all the people at FEMA. Thanks for your good work.

BROWN: Thank you, Wolf.

PHILLIPS: All right. We want to take you straight back out to Pensacola, Florida. Anderson Cooper joining us live once again.

Anderson, I'm getting a number of BlackBerry messages actually from friends of mine there in the area saying that they're out assessing damage, actually driving around, their cell phones, BlackBerries working.

Have you seen, you or John -- hi, John Zarrella -- have you guys seen anybody out there sort of assessing the damage and taking a look at what has happened?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR/CORRESPONDENT: We've seen a lot of people out there. In fact, the I-10 Highway, which is behind us, which was badly damaged during Ivan, we've already -- it's still closed, but we've already seen the crews out there inspecting the bridge.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the DOT checking it out, making sure, going back up and down the bridge to make sure before they reopen it, because the bridges are all closed here. And that's the one that they lost during Hurricane Ivan.

COOPER: We also have seen a number of police officers and also some big heavy, like, Caterpillar-type equipment moving down the road. One gentleman came by who said he was in charge of all the equipment and it was out here pre-stationed in order to, you know, pick up any debris that might have fallen during the storm. And those guys were already at work.

So people are moving fast here to try to get back on track. We also heard from Florida Power, what, 95 percent of the people...

ZARRELLA: Have their power. It's amazing. I think we really got lucky here. Extraordinarily lucky, considering what we went through a few hours ago.

COOPER: Right.

ZARRELLA: Now, to see that it appears -- well, certainly the worst of the storm is to the east of us. But the folks in Pensacola got very, very lucky.

COOPER: Yes, well, you know, let's hope that, you know, the preparations made a difference, and all the people, you know, really putting the word out, because there was an awful lot of, you know, time to prepare for this storm. People knew it was coming.

And the people here, of course, you know, sadly are all too used to this sort of thing, so they knew what to do. And you know, a lot of people are already right now coming out, assessing the damage. You know, we see people here, this gentleman right over here, just came out, wanted to check things out.

ZARRELLA: People taking pictures and coming down to the water to take pictures.

COOPER: People have been sort of hunkered down in their homes for so long, you know, they want to sort of breathe a sigh of relief, get out and see how their neighbors are doing. So that's what we're seeing a lot of right now.

Let's check in with Chad Myers who is in Panama City Beach, Florida. He was also in the thick of it.

Chad, what's going on?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, you know what? I'm standing on someone's dock. And this is what I'm seeing a lot of now, an awful lot of debris coming out of the ocean. So clearly, the long- shore current bringing some of that current down from the east and pushing it off to the west. That's just the way that the waves and the wind are going right now.

We're in the middle of another squall here. And they're coming and going. Believe or not, just a few minutes ago, you could actually see a little bit of a halo of the sun. It's now gone.

But the reason why I want to talk to you guys is about these tornados. I don't want you going out there looking for these tornados. Most of the time they are wrapped in rain. They are very full of fluid. They're full of rain. You can't see the tornado anyway.

Don't go out there trying to take a picture. Just stay inside. If you get a tornado warning for your area, get in the basement, if you have one, or the interior room, if you have one. The closest to the center of your house as you can. Put as many walls between you and the outside as possible.

These are not huge F-5 tornados, like sometimes you'll get in Texas and Oklahoma, they're 0s, 1s and 2s, but they still do an awful lot of damage. And they're un-viewable, they're un-watchable, so don't even try. Keep yourself inside, and keep yourself safe -- Kyra?

PHILLIPS: All right, Chad Myers reporting there for us from Panama City, Florida, on the conditions, obviously. We've seen a number of times with Chad where it's calmed down quite a bit and then it's picked up. Right now, it's maintaining a pretty good area of calm there.

Let's go back to our Rick Sanchez. He's been working his way from Crestview, Florida. He's now heading west. He's in Hurricane One, which is our mobile unit, if you will. He's still up and going. Hasn't affected his live shots yet to this point.

Rick, tell us what you're seeing. How's it going?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's been quite a journey, Kyra. We've been going from one end of the Panhandle to the other, starting off in Panama City and then trying to make our way over to Fort Walton Beach in Pensacola. But we were stopped there when we came across what had to be one of the most amazing things that (INAUDIBLE) and that was the Gulf of Mexico, (INAUDIBLE) the road, Highway 98, essentially just taking it over, to the point where you just couldn't cross.

So then we had to come double back, staying on the air as much as we possibly could with this vehicle. When we found out that there was an incident in Crestview that sounded quite serious -- an entire roof had been blown off a building.

We've got some pictures. We can just give you a sense of what happened there, once again. As you look at the pictures, it looks pretty dramatic. And the people affected, I'm sure, are still telling the story, because there was 100 people -- now, think of the irony of this.

These are people who have homes near the shoreline along Panama City, Destin, parts of Fort Walton Beach, along that strip there. They wanted to go north so that they could avoid the damage that could be caused by the surf and the winds, so they ended up in this place called Crestview hoping to ride out the storm.

Instead, they're in a hotel where, suddenly, a gust of wind comes and blows part of the roof off. And then you had another part of the roof, until the whole thing falls on a power line and almost tips over the pole, the power pole itself.

Firefighters arrived at the scene, and obviously, it was quite serious there for quite awhile. They took some of those people over to a shelter. You may be seeing some of those pictures in just a little bit. It's the local middle school where they expected maybe 300 people. They got more than 400 people. They were packed to the point where they couldn't put the people from the hotel itself.

So it's really been a very difficult situation here in Crestview. We're in an area now which, you know, as we've discussed before, it's a part -- the storm goes by, but the tornadic activity doesn't. And we're looking at some wind -- if you come back to us live now, you can look in the sky, you can still see the wind. But you see those cloud formations that Chad was talking about earlier, as well.

And we're not far from where Jeff Flock is from Alabama. That's just right up the road up there, as we continue to move in that direction. And that's what officials are saying now.

The winds are still howling. The bands come in from time to time. I'm going to show you something now, Kyra, because you asked me earlier.

Michael, if you would, stop the vehicle.

I'm going to show you exactly how we were able to do this. For those of you who remember CNN's coverage from Iraq during the war -- it's going to get a little windy here, folks -- you might recall that we used this. It's called a -- well, we call it a bubble. And essentially, it's like a radar or a sat situation -- by "sat," I mean satellite -- that allows you to broadcast at all times because, as the vehicle moves, the satellite is locked in from above onto this antenna that we have on top of the car.

And you're looking at it right there. Let me shift my microphone around. You can actually see how it works. As long as we get it in there, and stay in one place, we're able to move and still provide a signal.

Now, the problem and the catch here is, Kyra, is that that particular model doesn't allow you to be in very, very strong winds. So from time to time, when we were in winds of excess of 120 miles an hour, then we had some problems.

For the most part, if we stayed in shelter, we have been able to provide a pretty good signal throughout the day, throughout this storm, which we think may have been one of the first times anything like this has been done. For the most part, it's gone well, thanks to the engineers and the crew that we've been working with out here.

Kyra, back to you.

PHILLIPS: So, Rick, you're heading now from Florida to the Alabama border, is that right? And I also want to know if you are...

SANCHEZ: Yes.

PHILLIPS: That is correct? OK, so are you going to check in on this area in Baldwin County, I-65, with this tornado touchdown?

SANCHEZ: Yes, we were just trying to make contact with our weather department to see if we can get some specific details about what the area is, to see if there's any damage there. Because we were the first to arrive in Crestview, as well, and nobody even knew about that.

So if we can get some details of that area in Alabama, that's where we'd like to go next and see what's going on there. And hopefully, with this vehicle, we'll be able to show you the pictures immediately after we get there.

BLITZER: So, Rick, it's...

SANCHEZ: And here comes another strong gust of wind, Kyra.

BLITZER: All right. Be careful over there, Rick. It's Wolf. If it's too dangerous, get back inside that vehicle.

But I just want to make it clear, what you and your crew are trying to do now is follow this hurricane and drive into it. In effect, you're chasing the hurricane, is that right?

SANCHEZ: Yes. What we're trying to do is follow the pattern. I mean, wince we are in a mobile vehicle -- let me just close the door here, Wolf. Excuse me for just a moment. It's hard to do when the wind is fighting you.

Because we're in a mobile vehicle, we're actually able to get to places and scope them out, so to speak, as the damage has occurred or as are still remnants of the storm there. So because we're close to Alabama right now, we're going to try and head over the border and see if some of those areas where they've reported some tornadic activity have caused some damages that we can then get back on the horn and tell you guys about immediately.

So that's what we aim to do. But you know, when you cover a story like this, it's very fluid. And you try and get where you can. And you try and meet the obstacles and deal with them the best you can. So at this point, in this part of Florida, we hope to be able to go over there and find what we can. We don't know what it is at this point.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right. We call it Hurricane One, the vehicle that Rick Sanchez and his crew, they're driving in right now. They're doing some incredible journalism for us. Thanks very much, Rick. We'll be checking back with you -- Kyra?

PHILLIPS: He worked his way from Florida. Now he's heading to Alabama. We, of course, have been talking about the tornado warnings throughout Alabama. A tornado evidently touching down in Baldwin County area, i-65. Also, warnings in Monroe. A bit of rural area, we are told, so hopefully there will not be an extensive amount of damage.

But our Rick Sanchez heading that way. We're going to continue more coverage, of course. We're also going to be hearing from Alabama Governor Bob Riley. He'll be holding a news conference coming up pretty soon. We'll take that live.

There's a live picture right there via our affiliate WSPA. We'll continue to follow that.

Once again, Hurricane Dennis, Category 2 winds, clocking 105 miles per hour. You're watching CNN's hurricane coverage. This is your hurricane headquarters. More coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Things have been moving very fast today. Let's take a moment to review the events leading up to this moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANCHEZ: You're looking at a storm surge. This is what was Highway 98, what was a passable road, that is now essentially underwater.

JERAS: The eye wall of Hurricane Dennis is now making landfall.

COOPER: The winds really have picked up. If you look over there, the trees are moving, are getting pushed pretty good here. And as you can see, the water, it's just completely horizontal. The wind is just pushing this rain. And the rain has really picked up, as well. It's impossible to even look into the wind.

ZARRELLA: You can't turn your face over here to the sand, and the rain, and the wind. I'd say we're pretty close to hurricane- force-winds sustained now.

SANCHEZ: What we're experiencing here now is the storm surge coming up and coming over onto the sea wall, and every once in a while, splashing over the top.

COOPER: Let me just explain where we are. We're basically seeking the safety of a Ramada Hotel. There's two walls behind our camera. And we are all basically kind of clustered behind these walls for safety.

And if you look just out there, that is an enormous Ramada sign, which has just been twisting in the wind. As you can see, I mean, it is moving. That is a big concern. We are very afraid that that thing could just come down.

ZARRELLA: Watch out for that aluminum! Jump! Get back, get back! It's coming apart!

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Look over there! Look over there!

ZARRELLA: It's coming apart!

COOPER: That is aluminum. That's part of the sign. Look at this!

ZARRELLA: Look at this, it's all coming apart! The trees are coming down!

COOPER: Did you see that tree that went down?

ZARRELLA: Big trees coming down. Big trees coming down.

COOPER: Be very careful. Look at that sign...

ZARRELLA: If that's a sign, it's down. It's falling apart! Get back! Get back! Get back!

COOPER: Unbelievable. I've never seen anything like this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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