MIAMI -- Hurricane Dennis, a dangerous Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 115 mph, is bearing down on the U.S. Gulf Coast and is expected to make landfall somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and the Louisiana coast as early as July 10.

Before making a direct hit on Cuba, the storm brushed the coasts of Haiti and Jamaica causing widespread power outages, downed trees and landslides.

According to AP reports, the death toll in the Caribbean reached 15 from storm-related causes with 10 deaths in Cuba and five in Haiti.

Once only six miles from becoming a Category 5 storm, the strongest rated hurricane, Dennis weakened from 150 mph to 125 mph and is forecast to weaken further as it continues to pass over Cuba, yet still remain a major storm.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) expect Dennis to remain at least a Category 3 storm, with winds of at least 111 mph, when it enters the Gulf of Mexico, and some strengthening could occur before it reaches the U.S. coast.

According to a meteorologist at the NHC, the path the storm is now taking should keep it at least 75 miles to the west of the Florida Keys. However, hurricane-force winds and tropical storm-force winds still could reach the Keys as the storm passes July 9.

With that in mind, about 45,000 tourists, mobile home residents and those living in the southern part of the lower Keys were told to evacuate on July 8 and the rest of the Keys were taking precautions to ensure the safety of their homes and businesses.

As of the latest forecast, a hurricane warning was in effect for the lower Keys and a hurricane watch for the middle and upper Keys as well as the Panhandle from the Steinhatchee River in Florida to the Pearl River along the Mississippi-Louisiana border.

Meanwhile, a tropical storm warning was issued in Florida for Anclote Key near Tampa Bay around the tip to Golden Beach in Miami-Dade County. A tropical storm watch was issued for Anclote Key north to Steinhatchee River.

Heavy rains, storm surge flooding and large and dangerous battering waves can be expected in the areas affected by the watches and warnings. Isolated tornadoes also are a possibility.

To contact's Managing Editor Kimberly Scholz, send e-mail to [email protected].

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