August 29, 2006

Ernesto targets south Florida

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto was moving toward
south Florida on Tuesday -- the first anniversary of Hurricane
Katrina -- after soaking Cuba with heavy rain.

Florida residents lined up for supplies with the approach
of Ernesto, which could strengthen over the warm waters of the
Florida Straits. But the storm was expected to pack less than
hurricane strength when it hit -- possibly in the Miami-Fort
Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area, home to about 5 million

Ernesto, which briefly became the Atlantic season's first
hurricane on Sunday, killed two people in Haiti before striking
Cuba, where it dropped up to 7 inches of rain.

At 2 a.m. (0600 GMT), Ernesto was barely at tropical storm
strength, with top winds of 40 mph (64 kph). A tropical storm
becomes a hurricane when winds reach 74 mph (119 kph).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto would
likely move back over water later on Tuesday morning and be
near the Florida Keys by evening.

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

Forecasters said Ernesto could dump 5 to 10 inches of rain
over parts of east and south Florida and the Keys through
Wednesday. The state has been battered by eight hurricanes in
two years.

Officials and residents were mindful of nature's force a
year to the day since Hurricane Katrina slammed the U.S. Gulf
Coast, where it swamped New Orleans, killed 1,500 people and
caused $80 billion in damage.

NASA called off the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis
from Cape Canaveral this week. Florida declared a state of
emergency and television stations reminded residents to fill
bathtubs with water and put up hurricane shutters.

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


By 2 a.m. (0600 GMT), the center of Ernesto was near the
north coast of Cuba, about 20 miles south-southeast north of
Canagua. It was 275 miles southeast of Key West, Florida, and
about 265 miles south-southeast of Miami. Ernesto was moving
west-northwest at 12 mph (19 kph), the Miami-based hurricane
center said.

In Cuba, many of the 600,000 people who were evacuated
before the storm returned home after Ernesto passed, with no
initial reports of deaths or serious damage.

"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.

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."

Oil prices edged up on Tuesday after falling more than $2
on Monday as 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)