Thursday, October 25, 2012
Hurricane Sandy growing stronger as it nears Cuba
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Sandy, growing stronger over warm Caribbean waters, lashed eastern Cuba with heavy rains and rising winds on Wednesday as it bore down on the communist island after ripping across Jamaica.
At least 55,000 people had been evacuated, Cuban officials said, principally because of expected flooding from rains that could total up to 20 inches (50 cm) in some places and a storm surge the Cuban weather service said was already beginning along the southeastern coast.
They said the surge could reach 6 feet (2 meters), with waves up to 26 feet (8 meters) expected to pound the coast.
The storm, with sustained winds of 90 miles per hour (145 kph), was intensifying over 88 degree Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) waters and could climb from a Category 1 storm to Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT on Thursday) advisory.
A Category 2 storm has winds between 96 and 110 mph (154 and 177 kph).
Sandy was located 85 miles (137 km) southwest of Guantanamo, Cuba, and moving north at 13 mph (21 kph), the center said.
The eye of the storm was expected to make landfall near Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city, 470 miles (756 km) southeast of Havana, Cuban forecasters said.
They said it would cross the island within a few hours, heading north toward the Bahamas, where hurricane warnings have been posted for the southeastern Ragged Islands. A tropical storm watch was in place for south Florida.
Sandy was not expected to enter the Gulf of Mexico, where the United States has extensive oil and gas production.
The Cuban government suspended flights to and from eastern Cuba, along with bus and train service in the area.
Officials put agricultural products including sugar and coffee into warehouses out of harm's way. Almost 3,000 Cubans working on the coffee harvest in Santiago de Cuba were sent home.
In Holguin province, processing plants for nickel, Cuba's main export, continued operations, Cuban television said.
Cubans said they were battening down the hatches as the storm approached.
"The weather is getting very ugly," said self-employed worker Esteban O'Reilly in Santiago de Cuba.
"I've lit a candle to the Virgin of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba, to ask that Sandy not do much damage," said O'Reilly, 45.
Retiree Yolanda Perez, also in Santiago de Cuba, said she hoped Cuba's coastal Sierra Maestra mountains, from which Fidel Castro fought Cuba's 1959 revolution, would take some of the steam out of Sandy as it moved inland.
"I am hoping the mountains of eastern Cuba will slow the winds and rains of Sandy so it won't do much damage here," she said.
At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, winds near 50 mph (80 kph) were blowing heavy rains sideways and rattling doors at a base hotel, said Reuters reporter Jane Sutton, who was at the base to cover war crimes tribunals.
Electricity was out and all but emergency workers were confined to quarters, she said.
Military officials said most of the 166 prisoners at Guantanamo were already housed in buildings capable of withstanding a hurricane, and the few who were not had been moved to safe quarters.
In Jamaica, Sandy caused widespread power outages, flooded streets, damaged homes and caused at least one death.
"A part of the roof of my veranda just went like that," said Walford Freak, 55, who lives in the coastal city of Iter Boreale. "At least five of my neighbours have lost their entire roofs."
A police official said a man died under a crush of stones that fell from a hillside as he tried to get into his house in a rural village near Kingston, Jamaica's capital.
Computer models generally forecast that Sandy would steer clear of the U.S. East Coast, but some showed it could pose a risk to the U.S. Northeast early next week.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana, Kevin Gray in Miami, Horace Helps in Jamaica and Jane Sutton in Guatanamo; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Eric Beech)