August 29, 2006

Ernesto heads for south Florida

By Tom Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto began intensifying
on Tuesday as it left Cuba and headed over open water toward
south Florida where forecasters said there was a chance it
could come ashore at hurricane strength.

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which
battered the U.S. Gulf Coast and swamped New Orleans, a state
of emergency was in effect in Florida as Ernesto approached.
Residents stocked up on supplies, tourists were ordered out of
the Florida Keys and courts and schools were closed.

At 5 a.m. (0900 GMT), Ernesto's maximum sustained winds had
strengthened to 45 mph (72 kph) over the warm waters of the
Florida Straits from 40 mph (64 kph) several hours earlier when
it was still over Cuba.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto was
expected to come ashore along the middle to upper Florida Keys
and heavily populated south Florida in 18 to 24 hours.

"Now that Ernesto has moved back over water at least some
steady intensification is expected," the hurricane center said,
adding there was a chance the storm "could become a hurricane
before reaching Florida."

It added Ernesto could later re-emerge over the Atlantic
off northeast Florida and make a second landfall near the South
Carolina/North Carolina coasts in 60 to 72 hours, also near
hurricane intensity.

Ernesto was briefly the year's first hurricane on Sunday
when its top winds reached 75 mph (121 kph) before it weakened
over the mountains of Haiti.

The storm killed two people in Haiti before striking Cuba,
where it dropped up to 7 inches of rain before fading into
showers and thunderstorms.

Forecasters said Ernesto could dump 5 to 10 inches (12-25
cm) 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 flooded most of New
Orleans, killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage.

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


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.

Many of the 600,000 Cubans who were evacuated before the
storm returned home after Ernesto passed and there were 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.

At 5 a.m. (0900 GMT), the center of Ernesto was 230 miles

southeast of Key West, Florida, and about 235 miles

south-southeast of Miami. Ernesto was moving northwest at
14 mph (22 kph), the Miami-based hurricane center said.

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)