August 28, 2006

Ernesto heads to Florida

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto drenched
southeastern Cuba on Monday and stayed on a path toward the
Florida Straits, where it could regain hurricane strength and
hit Florida's most populous region.

Ernesto, which briefly became the Atlantic season's first
hurricane on Sunday, killed two people in impoverished Haiti.

It then faded to a mass of thunderstorms with 40 mph winds
as it moved over Cuba. Forecasters said it still could be a
Category 1 hurricane by the time it neared the Miami-Fort
Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area, home to about 5 million

Battered by eight hurricanes in two years, Florida prepared
for a blow a year after Hurricane Katrina smacked the state on
its way to the U.S. Gulf coast, where it swamped New Orleans,
killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage.

Hour-long lines formed at gas stations and people shopped
for plywood, batteries and water across a region where
Hurricane Wilma knocked out power to millions and caused $12
billion in damage just 10 months ago.

"Just prepare. It's not fun and games," Mike Puto, city
manager of Marathon in the Florida Keys, told residents.

NASA called off the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis
from Cape Canaveral this week and said the spacecraft would
likely be taken off the launch pad and rolled into a hangar to
to keep it safe.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto made
landfall earlier Monday near the southeast Cuban town of
Guantanamo, site of a U.S. naval base where several hundred
suspected al Qaeda and Taliban militants are held.

It brought more than 6 inches of rain in eight hours as it
moved inland but few wind gusts.


"Ernesto is but a shadow of its former self," Cuban weather
forecaster Jose Rubiera said shortly before Cuba lifted a
hurricane warning in the provinces of Guantanamo, Santiago and
Granma. Evacuees from those areas were being returned home.

Facing its first big storm in decades without ailing leader
Fidel Castro at the helm, Cuba had evacuated more than 600,000
people, many in buses and trucks. Cattle and crops were
protected and domestic flights to eastern Cuba suspended.

There was no sign of Raul Castro, the younger brother who
took over Cuba's government while Fidel Castro recovers from
intestinal surgery.

Ernesto's center was 15 miles east-southeast of Holguin,
Cuba, at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT), and moving northwest at 10 mph,
the Miami-based hurricane center said.

It was expected to regain 80 mph winds after moving off the
northern Cuban coast. Hurricanes are fueled by warm water.

"It's really uncertain how well organized the system is
going to be and how strong it's going to be," hurricane
forecaster Richard Knabb said.

Ernesto provided a sharp reminder to residents of
vulnerable U.S. coastal areas that the peak of the hurricane
season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, was upon them.

Florida's government declared a state of emergency and
television stations cranked up coverage with reminders to fill
bathtubs with water and to put up hurricane shutters.

"My suggestion is to take this storm very seriously,"
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said. "A hurricane is a hurricane."

Tourists were ordered out of the Florida Keys and schools
and courts were closed in the low-lying, 110-mile island chain
off Florida's southern tip.

Ernesto was downgraded to a tropical storm after pounding
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. It killed at least
two people, one of them near Gonaives, a port city where
tropical storm flooding killed 3,000 people two years ago.

Oil prices fell over $2 on Monday after Ernesto seemed less
likely to threaten oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, where
a quarter of U.S. oil and gas is pumped.

(Additional reporting by Michael Christie 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)