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Michelle Barrels Into Cuba
By Anita Snow, Associated Press Writer
Monday, Nov. 5, 2001; 1:37 a.m. EST
HAVANA –– Hurricane Michelle roared across a pitch-black Cuba Sunday night as the government shut down power and evacuated 750,000 people from a storm packing gusts of up to 130 mph. The island was also without phone service because of Michelle, which Fidel Castro likened to a U.S.-funded invasion in 1961.
Forecasters said the storm had probably peaked by early Monday, and was hovering over the northern part of the island. The Florida Keys were evacuated as meteorologists warned that the island chain likely would be brushed by the storm, which was expected around the Bahamas on Monday morning.
With communications nearly completely knocked out, conditions on Cuba were unclear. There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries, and the only confirmed damage was to a state television transmitting facility on the Isle of Youth, off the main island's southern coast.
Castro called an impromptu news conference in Havana late Sunday, saying 750,000 people had been evacuated from this island of 11 million. He also noted that Michelle entered Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, on the southern Zapata Peninsula, comparing the hurricane to the invasion by a CIA-funded army of exiles that landed there in a botched attempt to overthrow him 40 years ago.
"Our people are well organized, they have experience. The greatest success will be to keep the number of victims low," he said. Evacuations are mandatory in Cuba's civil defense system, designed in the Cold War around military attack and political control.
The government shut off power across the western half of the island shortly after the storm made landfall around 4 p.m., some 70 miles southeast of Havana, apparently as a precaution. With telephones down, emergency workers were forced to rely on ham radios. "The (Cuban) civil defense is trying to set up ham radio stations throughout the island to transmit information," said Julio Ripoll, a spokesman for the U.S. National Hurricane Center's volunteer amateur radio station in Miami. "I think they will have a communications blackout, except for ham radio, for quite a while."
The hurricane center was using ham radio to keep in touch with more than 140 radio operators on Cuba, Ripoll said. The storm battered central-western Cuba during the day with sustained winds of 125 mph and gusts of up to 130 mph, the Hurricane Center said. Over the last four days, 10 to 20 inches of rain had fallen on the island, hurricane forecaster Hugh Cobb said.
In Havana, there was no rain as of late Sunday night but the winds were howling and residents were indoors, in the darkness. Michelle also created an 18-foot storm surge on the outlying island of Cayo Largo on Cuba's south coast Sunday, but there was no immediate word on what damage it caused.
The storm was projected to veer east toward the Bahamas with winds near 100 mph and cross near Andros Islands late Monday morning, Cobb said. It could come within 60 miles of the Bahamian capital, Nassau, home to most of the country's 300,000 people, he said. The storm has already killed a total of 12 people in Central America and Jamaica. At 1 a.m. Monday, Michelle's sustained winds were down near 105 mph, with higher gusts.
Tropical storm force winds extended up to 175 miles and were bringing heavy squalls to the Florida Keys. In the Bahamas, most of the businesses in the capital of Nassau had put up plywood and metal shutters. A few stores stayed open Sunday, and shoppers scrambled for water, batteries and canned food. Schools were canceling Monday classes.
Flights to Andros Island, the first Bahamian island that comes along Michelle's projected path, were canceled by Sunday afternoon. Some families began moving to government shelters. "Everyone is quite relaxed," said Diane Brown, assistant manager of a local yacht club on Andros Island.
Michelle was not expected to strike Florida directly. But forecasters warned that if the storm turns more to the north, the Florida Keys and south Florida could be pelted with heavy rain and strong wind on Monday. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency Saturday, and a mandatory evacuation order was issued for all of the Florida Keys on Sunday. "It's going to be close," said Stacy Stewart, a hurricane specialist at the hurricane center in Miami.
The chain of some 40 islands, stretching 128 miles, have a little more than 80,000 permanent residents, plus visitors. The keys are connected by highway bridges, but only two spans connect the first island, Key Largo, to the mainland.
A hurricane warning also was in effect Sunday afternoon for the northwestern and central islands of the Bahamas. Bermuda, about 1,200 miles northeast of the storm, issued a hurricane watch. The hurricane is to pick up speed after passing through the Bahamas and could reach the mid-Atlantic British territory within 36 hours, Cobb said.
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press
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