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Dennis packs a punch in rural areas

Weakened storm called merciful in Florida Panhandle

NAVARRE BEACH, Fla. -- The first hard look at the spot where Hurricane Dennis rolled ashore revealed a messy patchwork of buckled roads, tattered roofs, downed power lines, and washed-out beaches -- damage accepted by storm-weary residents as mercifully moderate.

The situation was considerably worse in flooded villages and rural towns that may have provided a glimpse of the possible misery to come as the hurricane's remnants sweep through the South.

''It's total devastation," said Steve Dunbar, who stood yesterday in muck left behind when chest-deep chocolate-brown water filled his tavern and the rest of the tiny fishing village of St. Marks, 175 miles east of where 120-mile per hour Dennis roared ashore Sunday afternoon.

The town of 325 people 20 miles south of Tallahassee had been known as one of Florida's most scenic spots, where tourists could sit on the porch of the famed Posey's Oyster Bar, drink a few beers, and watch the sun set over the fishing fleet.

Now its handful of restaurants, taverns, the post office, and lone grocery store were filled with water and mud from the receding floods, the electricity was out, and the streets were littered with beer coolers, tables, chairs, and even a bar.

''I'm going to put up a sign, 'Interior by Dennis,' " said Dunbar, who planned to reopen in a few days, even though he doesn't have insurance. ''We're not going to quit."

Dennis was responsible for at least 20 deaths in the Caribbean and a handful in the United States, including a 3-year-old boy run over by his father's car as the family was preparing to evacuate in DeFuniak Springs, a man electrocuted in Fort Lauderdale when he stepped on a fallen power line, and a Georgia man killed in his sleep by a falling poplar tree.

About 500,000 were without power yesterday afternoon, including 322,000 in Florida, where utilities have warned people they could be without electricity up to three weeks.

Dennis caused an estimated $1 billion to $2.5 billion in insured damage in the United States, according to a projection by AIR Worldwide Corp. of Boston, an insurance risk-modeling company.

As the storm moved north and became a tropical depression, it dumped 3 to 8 inches of rain on Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Flooding and tornadoes were possible as it stalled over the Ohio Valley.

Some of the worst battering occurred as Dennis rolled through the heart of Georgia, dumping 8 inches of rain in 24 hours in some areas and forcing hundreds to evacuate.

In Mableton, Ga., Mary Anne Lunsford was up before dawn yesterday watching the television news about Dennis, when her dog appeared with wet paws.

Lunsford followed the tracks downstairs and saw the destruction. When it was over, her kitchen was under 11 inches of water, and a basement office and two cars in the driveway were submerged.

''I never dreamed in my lifetime this would happen to me," she said.

A far different flood was emerging on the highways, where some of the 1.8 million who heeded Dennis's evacuations returned home, with not enough gas to go around. There were widespread reports of gas shortages in northwest Florida and southwest Alabama, where troopers said there was no gas to be found along an 80-mile stretch of Interstate 65.

Dennis was a powerful, though mercifully swift storm that weakened and made a right turn just before making landfall, sparing Pensacola and other heavily populated parts of the Panhandle. Instead it made landfall between less populous Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach.

Its relatively small size, with hurricane winds extending just 40 miles, also kept Dennis from becoming another Ivan, which killed 29 people in the Panhandle and caused $7 billion in damage across the South last year.

Governor Jeb Bush, who toured the landfall zone of Florida's fifth hurricane in 11 months, downplayed the idea that Dennis was a dud.

''It didn't fizzle out. It was a Category 2 storm that hit. It's going to create serious problems for a lot of people," he said. ''I think we were all expecting it to be so far worse. So from that baseline, we say, 'OK good.' But this was a serious storm."

Yesterday afternoon, authorities bused residents of Navarre Beach over the bridge and allowed them to walk down the sand-choked road to their homes.

Large portions of the island's main road buckled or were washed away. Other sections were draped with pieces of parking lot or covered in the powdery-white sand. A restaurant still under repair because of Ivan was razed by Hurricane Dennis.

Teams of firefighters in helmets fanned out across the island looking for people who might have ridden out the storm.

Water lapped at the foundations of some Gulf-front condominiums, the sand washed out from beneath the concrete.

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