Dennis Menaces Gulf Coast

George Fiegenbaum, right, cuts plywood as he and Steve Richardson board up windows Thursday, July 7, 2005, at Fantastic Sams at Hardy Court Shopping Plaza in Gulfport, Miss. Mississippi Gulf Coast residents, with a wake-up call from Tropical Storm Cindy fresh on their minds, stepped up preparations Thursday for a possible weekend encounter with Hurricane Dennis. (AP Photo/The Sun Herald, James Edward Bates)
AP
People in the Florida Keys were ordered to flee and residents along hundreds of miles of Gulf Coast began boarding up Thursday as a rapidly strengthening Hurricane Dennis took aim at the storm-weary region.

Forecasters warned residents from Florida to Louisiana to be ready this weekend for Dennis, with top winds already at 135 mph. The hurricane turned into a Category 4 storm Thursday evening as it gained strength while barreling through the Caribbean toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Many in the hurricane's 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.

"We're trying to get ready for whatever happens. We've been through so much already," Jose Davila said as he painted a house in Port Charlotte, where blue tarps still dot the rooftops of homes waiting to be repaired from Hurricane Charley, the first of a record four hurricanes to hit Florida last year.

"They're freaked out," Joe Hendrickson said of residents he encountered snapping up plywood and storm shutters at a Home Depot in nearby Punta Gorda. "They're taking it serious. They've seen what a hurricane can do."

Tourists throughout the Florida Keys were ordered to evacuate, as were all mobile home residents — and all southernmost residents of the island chain. A hurricane warning was issued for the lower Keys and Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency.

"We end up getting married at 3:30 because the hotel evacuated us," said a bride in Key West. "So we have to leave now, so this is my wedding night."

Lines of cars were seen streaming out of the island chain Thursday.

"It's a nightmare. We came here for vacations. Here we are, spending about half an hour just waiting for gas," one motorist told CBS station WFOR.

Airlines reported that nearly all flights out of Key West were full, and Greyhound added buses to help get residents out of the area.