Thousands Flee as Dennis Approaches

The first rain from Hurricane Dennis (search) started falling Friday on the Florida Keys as the storm barreled toward the Gulf of Mexico, and forecasters warned that it might score a direct hit on the island chain.

Even if the eye passes to the west, they warned, hurricane-force winds extended up to 50 miles from the center, and tropical storm-force winds stretched up to 160 miles out.

Key West's (search) streets were calmer than usual early Friday, the result of an evacuation order issued a day earlier, but the Category 4 storm could batter the islands by evening, forecasters said. Morning breezes were expected to grow into stronger winds, joined by heavier rain and storm surges of up to 6 feet.

Click here to track Hurricane Dennis' path.

Forecasters also warned Gulf Coast (search) residents from Florida to Louisiana to be ready for Dennis to come ashore by Sunday. With top winds at 150 mph, the storm is already "extremely dangerous," the National Hurricane Center said. Dennis was blamed for at least five deaths in Haiti.

Tourists were asked to leave the Alabama beaches Friday, and Louisiana officials planned an announcement later in the morning.

Gas and ice were big sellers at Ricken's Food Mart in Summerdale, Ala., along Highway 59, the main link between the beaches and Interstate 10, store manager Tracy Duke said.

"Everyone I've spoken to plans to leave Saturday," she said.

In Florida, some gas stations had already run out of fuel Friday, and cars lined up at those that still had supplies. State officials said fuel supplies and distribution were at normal levels, and dry pumps would be restocked by Saturday.

A hurricane warning was issued for the lower Keys. A hurricane watch was in effect for the middle and upper Keys.

Everyone in the southernmost Keys, along with all tourists and mobile home residents in the low-lying island chain, were ordered to evacuate, and Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency. People snatched up bottles of water and other hurricane supplies as cars streamed out of the Keys.

About 4,600 more vehicles than average had left the Keys on Thursday by 9 p.m., according to a state traffic counter in Key Largo. Airlines reported that nearly all flights out of Key West were full and Greyhound added buses to help get thousands of people out of the area.

"This is my wedding night, and I'll be on a bus," said Sue Theroux, 42, of Point Pleasant, N.J., as she and her groom, Tom Theroux, waited in Key West for a Greyhound late Thursday. The couple had planned to marry on Saturday but hastily moved up the ceremony after the evacuation order.

Some, including lifelong Key West resident Barbara Crespo, planned to remain.

"There's not a whole lot you can do when you live in paradise," the 49-year-old real estate agent said Friday as she rode bikes with her husband.

A sign outside the Conch Republic Liquors store read, "Dennis Don't Be a Menace."

At 11 a.m. EDT, Dennis' eye was about 130 miles west of Camaguey, Cuba, and about 250 miles south-southeast of Key West. It was wobbling slightly as it moved northwest at about 15 mph.

Forecasters said the storm could drop 4 to 8 inches of rain Friday over the extreme end of southern Florida. A storm surge of 3 to 6 feet was possible in the lower Keys.

At Cape Canaveral, NASA decided Friday that Dennis would be far enough west to let the space shuttle Discovery stay on its launch pad, and the liftoff of the first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster remained on track for Wednesday.

In Alabama, Clay Ingram, spokesman for AAA Alabama, said Thursday that many people were making hotel reservations inland as a precaution.

"Some people say, `I don't care, just get me out of here, find me something,"' Ingram said.

Many in Dennis' projected path already got a wake-up call this week from a surprising Tropical Storm Cindy that caused three deaths, knocked out power to thousands, and spawned twisters that toppled trees and caused up to $40 million damage to a famed NASCAR track, the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

In Louisiana, which was still mopping up after Cindy, officials said they would have a better idea by Friday morning whether evacuations would be needed.

Meanwhile, the remnants of Cindy were centered southwest of Washington on Friday morning, and flood and flash flood watches were posted from the Carolinas into New England.

Four hurricanes battered Florida last year, causing more than $40 billion in damage.