Relief as Hurricane Dennis weakens

Relieved tourists and residents gradually began returning to coastal areas in Alabama and Florida today to survey the damage left by Hurricane Dennis.

The monster storm ripped over the Gulf coast yesterday leaving severe flooding and power shortages but nowhere near the devastation caused by Hurricane Ivan in the same region last year.

Dennis was blamed for the deaths of 10 people in Cuba and up to 22 in Haiti but lives were apparently spared as it slammed into the US mainland.

President George Bush declared major disaster zones in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama to aid the mammoth clean-up operation faced by hundreds of thousands of business and home owners.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush said the state was ready to respond to the storm.

“We’ve learned a lot in the last year, and all of the lessons learned and all of the training is now going to be brought to bear to provide support for hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.

Holidaymakers in the Florida Keys began returning to the islands but tourists were warned to check with properties in advance.

Florida Keys Marathon Airport was open for business and Key West International Airport was set to reopen later today.

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), said that while damage was not as widespread as expected, the storm was still devastating to those whose homes were damaged.

“We have to get help to them,” he told US network NBC. “Fema crews will be out today distributing emergency supplies and then will begin the task of providing long-term relief.”

Dennis hit Florida’s Panhandle yesterday afternoon as a 10ft tidal surge roared over sea walls, smashing down trees, hotel and road signs and spilling eight blocks inland.

Winds reaching 120mph ripped roofs off buildings and cut power to more than half a million homes in four states.

Although officials and residents had feared worse, hurricane-force winds stretched only 40 miles from the centre, compared with 105 miles for Ivan.

One man was electrocuted in Fort Lauderdale, when he stepped on a power line brought down by strong winds.

As it reached Alabama the storm weakened to a tropical storm and winds subsided to 60mph.

Some 1.8 million people were urged to evacuate Florida and Mississippi, leaving more than 9,000 in shelters in Florida alone.

Dennis was the strongest hurricane to form so early in the season since records began and the fifth to hit Florida in less than a year.

As it moved north west through Alabama today the National Hurricane Centre said it was expected to decrease in speed over the next 24 hours.

Hurricane Ivan killed 25 people last summer.

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