August 27, 2006

Ernesto weakens as it pounds Haiti

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - Hurricane Ernesto weakened to a tropical
storm as it hammered flood-prone Haiti on Sunday and Florida
and Cuba started evacuations as the storm headed for the Gulf
of Mexico a year after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans.

Forecasters downgraded Ernesto when its sustained winds
slowed from 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour) to less than 60
mph (97 kph) per hour as mountainous terrain in southern Haiti
disrupted the storm.

But officials in the impoverished Caribbean nation said
Ernesto triggered flooding and destroyed at least 13 homes on
the island of La Gonave. They were trying to confirm reports
the storm killed one person in the port city of Gonaives, where
tropical storm flooding killed 3,000 people two years ago.

Residents of battered New Orleans were breathing easier as
the Atlantic season's first hurricane looked like it would miss
the jazz city but raised alarms in Florida, weary from eight
hurricanes in the last two years.

Cuba, facing its first big storm in decades without
President Fidel Castro at the helm, began evacuating 200,000
people from its eastern provinces and called its fishing fleet
to harbor as Ernesto swept through the Caribbean Sea just south
of Haiti.

Several oil companies moved non-essential personnel from
rigs off the U.S. Gulf coast.

Ernesto's center was near the southwestern tip of Haiti,
about 150 miles west-southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince,
at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) on Sunday, the U.S. National Hurricane
Center said. It was moving northwest at 8 mph (13 kph) and was
expected to be near the southeastern coast of Cuba on Monday

Forecasters said Haiti, the poorest country in the
Americas, could see up to 20 inches of rain.

Emergency supplies were being sent to affected areas, U.N.
peacekeepers were being mobilized and about 25 families were
being moved from a flood-prone slum in the capital, Prime
Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis said.

"The cyclone is moving slowly and we are very concerned
that the consequences could be serious," he said. "That's why
the government is mobilized at the highest level and measures
have been taken to limit possible damage."


The National Hurricane Center said Ernesto could weaken as
it treks across Cuba on Monday but it was expected to regain
strength and become a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds
of about 90 mph (145 kph) in the Gulf.

"I expect it to come off the north coast of Cuba as a
tropical storm and then ... over the Florida Straits we think
that it has a very good chance of intensifying again," NHC
director Max Mayfield said.

Ernesto's most likely track took it to Florida's southwest
coast, hit hard by Hurricane Charley two years ago, on
Wednesday afternoon. But virtually all areas of the state from
the Panhandle to the Florida Keys and populous Miami-Fort
Lauderdale were the danger zone.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency,
mobilizing emergency teams and paving the way for federal
disaster aid should it be needed.

Emergency managers ordered visitors to leave the Keys, the
first step of a staged evacuation of the low-lying, 110-mile
(177-km) island chain off Florida's southern tip. The islands
were put under a hurricane watch, alerting residents to
possible storm conditions in 36 hours.

As the storm's track shifted east, New Orleans, still
struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina's blow last August
29, was farther from the danger zone.

"Ernesto got to go somewhere else," New Orleans Mayor Ray
Nagin said at the dedication of a monument to Katrina victims.
"We done had our time last year."

Hurricane Katrina flooded most of historic New Orleans. The
storm killed about 1,500 people on the Gulf Coast and caused
more than $80 billion in damage.

Oil prices rose on Friday as Ernesto developed. BP Plc,
Shell and Conoco all pulled some nonessential personnel from
Gulf rigs because of the storm.

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