GULF BREEZE, Fla. – The outlook was improving for Cathy Hart and thousands of others Tuesday along the storm-battered Gulf Coast, where signs of normal life were everywhere just two days after Hurricane Dennis (search) pummeled the region. Power was starting to come on, stores were opening their doors, and lines for ice and water were getting shorter.
Hart waited a half-hour in line for gas, and not wanting to waste what was in her tank she kept the air conditioner off — a prescription for misery with the temperature approaching 90.
Things were a little better at home. She at least has a generator to run a fan, and Hurricane Dennis spared her Gulf Breeze home, which was damaged 10 months ago by Hurricane Ivan (search).
"At least there are no trees on my house," Hart said. "I'll be happy to be just cleaning up branches."
"It's really quick," a relieved Deana Vess said as she drove in and out of the relief line at Gulf Breeze Middle School (search). Vess, who was without power six days after Ivan last year, said she hoped it will be turned back on sooner this time.
"The kids get miserable," Vess said.
Gulf Power spokesman John Hutchinson said fewer than 200,000 homes and business were without power in Florida on Tuesday — a marked improvement from a day earlier.
Most of those still without power were in Florida's two westernmost counties, Escambia and Santa Rosa. Hutchinson said the company would likely have 95 percent of the power back on within a week — except on Santa Rosa Island where the storm made landfall with 120 mph winds.
For many who lived through the aftermath of Ivan, the wait wasn't too daunting. "Mostly, it's an inconvenience," Hart said.
Restaurants in Pensacola experienced bustling business Tuesday as people without power at home went out for some food in the comforts of air conditioning. Home stores were also buzzing with people looking for chain saws and other equipment to begin their cleanup.
With few houses destroyed by Dennis, shelters also were shutting down. State officials reported that only 225 people remained in six shelters Tuesday.
Out in the Gulf of Mexico, petroleum companies on Tuesday restarted scores of production platforms that had been evacuated as the storm approached.
In Alabama, more than 800 people have called the attorney general's office to complain that some businesses are charging exorbitant prices to take advantage of people affected by Dennis.
Attorney General Troy King said the complaints have included grocery stores charging $5 for a bag of ice that would normally cost less than $2. State law makes it a misdemeanor to charge more than 25 percent above what the cost was during the 30 days before the emergency.
"It nauseates me that someone would charge $5 for ice to someone who is trying to keep their insulin or baby formula cool," Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said.
As Dennis sloshed inland and became a tropical depression, it dumped anywhere from 3 to 10 inches of rain over Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Georgia, before stalling over the lower Ohio valley, where up to 10 inches of rain was expected.
Meanwhile, attention was shifting to a new tropical storm that formed late Monday in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Emily was 530 miles east-southeast of Barbados on Tuesday afternoon and heading west. It had sustained wind of 50 mph and was expected to strengthen.