Ernesto nears Cuba on track to southern Florida

August 28, 2006

Washington Post- Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto bore down on southeastern Cuba on Monday after drenching Haiti with punishing rains, while forecasters issued a hurricane watch for the southern peninsula of Florida.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center issued the watch from Deerfield Beach southward on Florida's east coast and from south of Chokoloskee southward along the west coast. The watch, which means hurricane conditions could develop within 36 hours, remained in effect for all the Florida Keys.

Florida, storm-weary after eight hurricanes in the past two years, declared a state of emergency on Sunday and ordered tourists out of the vulnerable Keys almost a year to the day since Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans.

Ernesto, which was downgraded to a tropical storm on Sunday after skirting southern Haiti, was pounding Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, with flooding rainfall and killed at least one person there.

Cuba, facing its first big storm in decades without its ailing leader, Fidel Castro, at the helm, evacuated 300,000 people from eastern provinces where the storm was expected to hit the Sierra Maestra mountains later Monday.

The Miami-based hurricane center said in its 5 a.m. advisory that Ernesto was getting better organized as it approached southeastern Cuba and that heavy rains, floods and mudslides were a significant threat for eastern Cuba and much of the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Forecasters said Ernesto, which had become the year's first hurricane early on Sunday when its top winds reached 75 mph (119 kph), would likely make landfall along the southeastern Cuban coast later on Monday morning and possibly emerge off Cuba's north coast later on Monday night or Tuesday morning.

The hurricane center said Ernesto could weaken over Cuba and become a hurricane again in the Gulf with winds of about 86 mph (137 kph) as it approached Florida's southwest coast.

At 5 a.m. (0900 GMT), Ernesto's center was about 45 miles

from Guantanamo at Cuba's southeastern tip, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph), the hurricane center said. The storm was moving northwest at 12 mph (19 kph).

PREPARING FOR THE STORM

Tens of thousands of Cubans were transported from coastal and mountain villages in buses and trucks.

In Haiti, a woman died after huge waves from Ernesto's storm surge swept ashore on the southern island of Ile-de-Vache and destroyed her home. There was an unconfirmed report of another death in the port city of Gonaives, where tropical storm flooding killed 3,000 people two years ago.

Residents of battered New Orleans breathed easier as the season's first hurricane looked like it would miss the historic jazz city. Katrina struck New Orleans last August 29, killing about 1,500 people on the Gulf Coast and causing more than $80 billion in damage.

But alarms were raised in Florida.

Emergency managers ordered visitors to leave the Keys, a low-lying, 110-mile (177-km) island chain off Florida's southern tip.

Oil prices fell over $1 on Monday after Ernesto weakened to a tropical storm and its path toward Florida reduced the threat to U.S. oil facilities on the Gulf Coast where a quarter of U.S. oil and gas is pumped.

(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana, Jim Loney in Miami, Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Michael Peltier in Tallahassee, Peter Henderson in New Orleans, Laura Myers in Key West, and Erwin Seba in Houston)


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