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Gary Younge
Hurricane Dennis pounds Florida

Hurricane Dennis sent Gulf coast residents fleeing yesterday, but spared the region the worst of the predicted devastation after it weakened shortly before landfall.

The hurricane, which left 32 people in Haiti and Cuba dead, arrived in Alabama and northwestern Florida packing 120mph winds, pounding the beachfronts in an area that was hit by Hurricane Ivan just 10 months ago.

Reduced to a category 3 storm, from a 4 earlier in the day, the hurricane moved quickly north over Florida's panhandle.

"I think it slipped through, and we got lucky on this one," Ron McNesby, the sheriff of Escambia county, Florida, which includes Pensacola, told the New York Times.

Even in its weakened state Hurricane Dennis was strong enough to send debris flying, flood streets and topple trees.

But the sheriff's department's emergency dispatchers had not received anywhere near the number of calls that they did during Hurricane Ivan. "The phones rang so much during Ivan - it was people crying and screaming and yelling that they needed our help," said Lynda Aiken, 44, the assistant officer in charge of communications. "Today, we've been able to watch the storm on TV. We've been able to eat."

As the eye of the storm came ashore, most of the approximately 55 calls had been triggered by automated alarm systems designed to send a call when the power goes out, she said.

Ivan killed 25 people, caused $14bn (£8bn) in damages and destroyed or damaged 13 oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yesterday, Hurricane Dennis caused 211,000 homes and businesses to lose power across the southern tip of Florida, before the eye passed 125 miles to the northwest on its way to the coast.

"I'm watching building pieces and signs come off. The storm surge is actually starting to come up," Nick Zangari, who rode out the storm in his New York Nick's restaurant and bar in Pensacola, told the Associated Press.

"We were hearing like explosions that must have been like air condition units from other buildings smashing to the ground ... There were parts of buildings and awnings all around."

Energy companies pulled hundreds of workers off oil rigs and shut down some crude and natural gas production in the gulf, where the US gets a quarter of its oil and gas.

In a sign of just how ferocious they expected the hurricane to be, emergency officials in Pensacola told residents who decided to ride out the storm to write their names in waterproof ink across their chests in case they were killed and needed to be identified. As the storm passed, photographer Mari Darr Welch went ventured out of her Fort Walton Beach home to take pictures.

She saw signs blown down, homes flooded, trees and branches flying around. Boats that had broken loose from their docks were bobbing like toys in the ocean.

"It sounds like the proverbial freight train," Ms Welch said of the storm. "I stepped out on the front porch and got slammed against the house by a big gust."

In Alabama's coastal Baldwin county, which was ground zero for Ivan last year, officials were relieved. "We dodged a bullet," said emergency management director Leigh Anne Ryals, whose husband led a prayer at a news conference hours before the storm.

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