August 29, 2006

Ernesto heads for Florida Straits

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - A weakened Tropical Storm Ernesto
drenched Cuba on Monday and headed for the Florida Straits,
where it could regain some strength and hit south Florida a
year after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans.

Ernesto, which briefly became the Atlantic season's first
hurricane on Sunday, killed two people in impoverished Haiti
before striking Cuba, where it dropped up to 7 inches of rain
and faded to a mass of showers and thunderstorms with 40-mph
(64-kph) winds.

Forecasters said it might gather some force from the warm
waters of the Gulf Stream but would likely be below hurricane
strength by the time it hit south Florida, possibly in the
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area, home to about 5
million people.

Battered by eight hurricanes in two years, Florida
anticipated a pounding one year to the day after Hurricane
Katrina crushed 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 south Florida, 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 launchpad and rolled into a hangar to
keep it safe.

Ernesto made landfall in Cuba earlier on Monday near
Guantanamo Bay, site of a U.S. naval base where several hundred
suspected al Qaeda and Taliban militants are held.


By 11 p.m. (0300 GMT), the center of the storm was close to
the north coast of Cuba, about 20 miles north of the city of
Camaguey, moving west-northwest at 12 mph (19 kph), the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said.

"The eye went by. It wasn't as bad as we expected. There
was much less rain," said Yieney, a receptionist at the Brisas
Santa Lucia hotel on the coast of Camaguey province, where 200
package-deal tourists were staying. They were not evacuated due
to the low intensity of the storm.

Cuba had evacuated more than 600,000 people, but many of
them returned home after the storm passed. There were no
immediate reports of deaths or serious damage.

Ernesto's center stayed over land in Cuba longer than
forecasters had expected. Passage over land areas, especially
mountains, generally saps a storm's strength.

"This is really good news," National Hurricane Center
Director Max Mayfield said. "I think the chance of it becoming
a hurricane are diminishing."

Forecasters said Florida's southwest coast, the Florida
Keys and the populous southeast coast were all possible targets
for the weakened storm.

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.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush reassured residents there would be no
fuel shortages and urged them not to overreact by rushing to
the pumps.

Tourists were ordered out of the Florida Keys, a low-lying,
110-mile (177-km) island chain off Florida's southern tip.
Courts and schools were closed across the region.

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, Ed
Leefeldt in New York)