July 8, 2005

Hurricane Dennis hits Cuba, 18 dead in Haiti

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Dennis slammed into central
Cuba on Friday after killing 18 people in Haiti and was on
track for the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, where oil companies began
evacuating workers from rigs.

The storm, with 145-mph (235 kph) winds and driving rain,
ripped up trees and downed electricity lines in the city of
Cienfuegos as it roared across Cuba's south coast.

Cienfuegos resident Jorge Martinez, contacted by telephone,
said the howling wind was gaining strength in the city of
160,000, where power was already down. "It blew out a window in
my apartment building as it was made of hay," Martinez said.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the eye of Dennis
would head into the eastern Gulf on Friday evening and skirt
the Florida Keys on Saturday. It was the strongest Atlantic
hurricane to form this early in the season since records began
in 1851.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in Cuba,
whose Communist authorities suspended all school classes and
evacuated 656,144 people from the storm's path.

But in southern Haiti, many people fled their flooded homes
and the mayor of Grand-Goave, Marie Hingreed Nelchoix, said 17
people had died in and around her city, including 15 thrown
into a swollen river when a bridge collapsed.

Earlier officials had reported that a young man was killed
when a tree fell on a house near Les Cayes.

Dennis was expected to brush past the Florida Keys early on
Saturday and pass close to Gulf oil and gas fields before going
ashore on Sunday night along the Florida Panhandle, which was
hammered by Hurricane Ivan last September.

Chevron Corp said it evacuated all workers from the central
and eastern Gulf where oil and gas rigs could be at risk. Shell
Oil Co. said it also evacuated workers from Gulf operations as
a precaution. The area produces a quarter of U.S. crude and
natural gas.


Oil prices were near $61 a barrel as markets shrugged off
the impact of bomb blasts in London and focused on the impact
of Dennis, but traders said the price slipped in late trading
on profit-taking and on word Dennis may be weakening.

Cuban forecasters said the hurricane was expected to barrel
through Cuba and head out into the Florida Straits anywhere
between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero,

At 2 p.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center said Dennis
was near Cienfuegos, 125 miles southeast of Havana and moving
to the northwest at 17 mph (28 kph).

Some weakening was forecast as the storm moves over Cuba,
but Dennis was expected to remain a major hurricane as it bore
down on the United States on Friday night, it said.

U.S. authorities ordered residents to evacuate Key West and
the lower part of the Florida Keys, an island chain connected
to the southern tip of mainland Florida by a single highway.

NASA decided on Friday to leave space shuttle Discovery on
its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but continued to
watch Dennis closely. A decision to roll Discovery back to its
hangar would have delayed the scheduled Wednesday launch, the
first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

Dennis drenched Jamaica on Thursday, triggering mudslides
that blocked roads as the core of the storm moved north of the
mountainous Caribbean island of 2.6 million. About 3,000 people
moved to storm shelters in south-central Jamaica.

It also soaked the Cayman Islands, a tiny British territory
and banking center with 43,000 residents. Hurricane Ivan
damaged or destroyed 70 percent of the buildings on Grand
Cayman Island in September.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in
Port-au-Prince, Michael Christie in Miami, Michael Peltier in
Tallahassee and Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral)