Dennis heads for US after flattening Cuba

Hurricane Dennis gathered strength again on Saturday as it moved over the Gulf of Mexico away from Cuba, where it killed 10 people and left 1,5-million homeless, after causing five deaths in Haiti.

Forecasters said Dennis was following a north-westerly track through the Gulf of Mexico, where 116 oil platforms and rigs have been evacuated.

It is expected to wreak havoc with a swipe at the Florida Keys, which have been put under a hurricane warning, before next making landfall somewhere between western Florida and Louisiana late on Sunday.

With winds of up to 240kph, Dennis hit near Cuba’s central province of Cienfuegos at 5pm GMT on Thursday as a category-four hurricane, just one point shy of the maximum on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

Twelve hours later, after pummelling central Cuba, it dropped to category two on the island’s northern coast a few dozen kilometres east of the crowded capital, Havana.

It further weakened to category one, only to surge back up to category-two strength by 11am GMT, the Miami-based National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said.

Before Dennis’s arrival, Cuban authorities had rushed more than 700 000 people into shelters overnight, including about 2 500 foreign tourists.

At least three provinces sustained serious material damage, a government source said.
Homes were destroyed and power was knocked out in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second city on its east end.

Communications towers were toppled and tourist facilities in Santiago province sustained serious damage, the source added.

President Fidel Castro said the hurricane had killed 10 people and displaced another 1,5-million as it crossed the Caribbean island state.

At 11am GMT on Saturday, the centre of Dennis was located 153km west-southwest of Key West, Florida, the NHC said.

Fierce winds had decreased to about 170kph, but the storm still brought battering rain and destructive waves.

“Some re-strengthening is forecast during the next 24 hours,” the NHC said.

The storm crossed Cuba, population 11-million, over central provinces including La Habana, Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus.

About 2,2-million people live in the crowded capital, and 669 shelters were opened in Havana province.

Schools across the danger zone were shut on Friday, cultural events and public transport cancelled, and people ordered to evacuate the upper storeys of high-rise buildings.

The centre of the powerful hurricane skirted past the eastern tip of Jamaica on Thursday but dumped rain and flooded roads. Scores of people were stranded by floods and several bridges were badly damaged, but no deaths were reported.

In Haiti, Dennis left five people dead, 20 injured and another 30 listed as missing. Most of the victims were in the south and south-east. About 8 000 people were displaced.

Meanwhile, thousands of people on Friday evacuated Key West, Florida’s southernmost city, as well as areas along the United States Gulf coast.

Authorities ordered an evacuation throughout the Florida Keys, a vulnerable chain of islands linked to the mainland by a series of bridges and a single road.

Thousands of people headed to safety, but by late on Friday authorities urged those who did not heed evacuation warnings to stay indoors and ride out the storm as roads were no longer safe.

Most hotels, gas stations and stores in Key West shut down and numerous homes and businesses were boarded up.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush on Thursday declared an emergency in the south-eastern US state that was pummelled by four such hurricanes last year.

Nasa, however, decided to go ahead with plans for Wednesday’s launch of the space shuttle Discovery from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre, which lies hundreds of kilometres north of the hurricane’s projected track.—AFP

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