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  Hurricane Michelle Slams Cuban Coast

By Anita Snow
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, Nov. 4, 2001; 6:10 p.m. EST

HAVANA –– Powerful Hurricane Michelle slammed into Cuba's coast Sunday packing winds up to 135 mph and headed toward the country's premier tourist resort as the communist government evacuated more than a half-million people from low-lying areas.

Heavy surf pounded beaches in the lower Florida Keys, which forecasters say will likely be brushed by Michelle's winds after it slices crosswise through Cuba.

With 135 mph winds and a death toll of 12 already in Honduras, Nicaragua and Jamaica, the storm had local relief officials worried.

"We are afraid that it will be our Mitch," said Virginia Huergo, relief coordinator for the Cuban Red Cross, referring to the hurricane that ravaged Central America in 1998.

"We are prepared for the worst," she said.

The International Red Cross in Geneva reported that 24,500 Red Cross volunteers in Cuba were helping communist authorities in evacuation efforts. About 560,000 residents had been evacuated – mostly to the homes of friends or family – and 66,000 were in shelters.

Michelle made landfall around 4 p.m. EST on the Zapata Peninsula, on Cuba's southern coast in the central province of Matanzas near the Bay of Pigs, about 70 miles southeast of Havana, home to 2 million of Cuba's 11 million citizens. It was moving northeast, putting Cuba's premier vacation resort, Varadero, near its path.

Thousands of the island's 72,000 people had been moved from their homes to more secure shelter, and all electricity on the island had been shut off as a safety measure, Cuban television said.

Throughout the day, Michelle had spread heavy rains over Cuba as it neared the island's coast. Accumulations of 10 to 20 inches were expected in its path. Earlier, state television showed winds whipping palm trees along a deserted street on the Isle of Youth off the main island's southern coast.

The storm was not expected to strike Florida directly, but forecasters said winds of 75 mph or more could reach the keys late Sunday or Monday.

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 U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

A hurricane warning also was in effect Sunday afternoon for the northwestern and central islands of the Bahamas, including New Providence, where the capital, Nassau, is located.

In Havana, where 150,000 people were evacuated from flood-prone areas, the streets were nearly deserted Sunday afternoon as heavy rains and howling winds drove residents indoors.

Havana residents with homes facing the ocean put tape on their windows to keep them from shattering and tied down water tanks on their roofs.

On Sunday morning, there were long lines at gas stations and stores that sell imported food in U.S. dollars as residents stocked up on supplies, but most had shut down by noon.

Describing Michelle as "an extremely dangerous hurricane," the U.S. hurricane center said the powerful category 4 storm was about 95 miles south-southwest of Havana at 1 p.m. EST.

Michelle picked up speed overnight and by Sunday afternoon was moving northward at 13 mph. Its hurricane-force winds extended out 45 miles.

Forecasters said a 20-foot storm surge – a huge, fast-moving swell of ocean water that could flood a large area – was possible on Cuba's southern coast.

The storm had probably reached its peak strength, forecasters said. Michelle's winds were stronger than Hurricane Lili, a category 3 storm that wiped out crops and left thousands homeless in Cuba in 1996.

Hurricanes Andrew, which hit southern Florida in 1992, and Hugo, which struck the southeastern United States in 1989, were both category 4 storms.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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