for National Geographic News
Still eyeing the damage caused by two recent tropical storms and last year's Hurricane Ivan, residents of the United States' Gulf Coast are bracing for another pounding, this time from powerful Hurricane Dennis.
Dennis has already become one of the most powerful July hurricanes on record, lashing Cuba today with 150-mile-an hour (240-kilometer-an-hour) winds. The hurricane is expected to make landfall in the U.S. on Sunday.
Emergency-management and local-government officials from Florida to Louisiana are meeting today to decide whether to order evacuations for coastal residents. Mandatory evacuation orders have already been issued for the lower Florida Keys, which includes Key West.
The eye of Hurricane Dennis is expected to pass about 80 miles (130 kilometers) west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico early Saturday morning.
Officials in other Gulf Coast states are expected to make statements about coastal evacuations this afternoon. Dave Murzin, a member of the Florida Legislature from Pensacola, said this morning that he expects a mandatory evacuation order to be issued for barrier islands off the Florida Panhandle.
"I am sure there will be an evacuation order this afternoon," Murzin said.
Officials in Louisiana were less certain about evacuations there.
"It's too early to tell for mandatory evacuations here," said Paul Trotter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Slidell, Louisiana, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northeast of New Orleans.
Landfall This Weekend
This afternoon the hurricane struck Cuba with winds of at least 150 miles (240 kilometers) an hour. This makes it a strong Category Four storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which ranks hurricanes from one to five according to wind speeds and destructive potential.
Once the storm crosses Cuba, forecasters think Hurricane Dennis is likely to follow a track very similar to that of Hurricane Ivan. Ivan came ashore September 16 near Mobile Bay, Alabama. With winds approaching 130 miles (210 kilometers) an hour, the 2004 storm made landfall as a Category Three hurricane and caused heavy damage in nearby Pensacola, Florida.
"Those memories are still fresh in the minds of many, many people in this area," said Randy McKee, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Mobile, Alabama. "We're telling people this will be very similar to Ivan and to expect the same sort of weather and water conditions with Dennis."
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