August 27, 2006

Ernesto weakens between Haiti and Cuba

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Ernesto weakened to a tropical
storm as it pounded Haiti with torrential rains on Sunday, but
forecasters said it could regain hurricane strength over open
sea before barreling across eastern Cuba on track for the
Florida Keys.

Florida declared a state of emergency and ordered tourists
out of the vulnerable Keys as Ernesto brought a reminder of the
perils of the Atlantic hurricane season almost a year to the
day since Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans.

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

Heavy rainfall was a greater danger than winds, Cuban
weather forecaster Jose Rubiera warned.

Tens of thousands of Cubans were transported from coastal
and mountain villages in buses and trucks, and even
horse-driven carts. Cuba called its fishing fleet to harbor as
Ernesto swept through the Caribbean Sea just south of Haiti.

There was no sign of Raul Castro, the younger brother Fidel
Castro, 80, temporarily handed power to while recovering from
intestinal surgery.

Forecasters downgraded Ernesto when its sustained winds
slowed to 60 miles per hour (97 km per hour) as mountainous
terrain in southern Haiti disrupted the storm. By 8 p.m. EDT
its winds had fallen further to 50 mph (85 kph).

Ernesto triggered flooding and destroyed at least 13 homes
on the Haitian island of La Gonave, officials said. 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 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.

Several oil companies moved personnel from rigs off the
Gulf Coast, where a quarter of U.S. oil and gas is pumped.

Ernesto's center was 140 miles (225 miles) from Guantanamo
at Cuba's southeastern tip at 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday, the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said. The storm was moving northwest
at 7 mph (12 kph).

Forecasters said flood-prone 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 hurricane center said Ernesto could weaken again as it
treks across Cuba but it was expected to regain strength and
become a Category 2 hurricane with 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,"
hurricane center 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 were
in the danger zone.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, 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.

New Orleans, still struggling to recover from Hurricane
Katrina's blow last August 29, appeared safe.

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

Katrina killed about 1,500 people on the Gulf Coast and
caused more than $80 billion in damage.

(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)