Isaac drenches Haiti, Cuba, heads toward Florida
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5 a.m. EDT
KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — Tropical Storm Isaac moved off Cuba’s northern coast before dawn as forecasters warned Isaac would gain strength over open water and be at or near hurricane strength as it approached the Florida Keys on Sunday.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Isaac was centered about 265 miles east-southeast of Key West at 2 a.m. EDT Sunday. Isaac had maximum sustained winds of 60 mph and was moving northwest at 17 mph
The storm’s trek toward the Keys was being anxiously watched as Florida prepared to welcome thousands of visitors for the start of the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and urged vacationers to leave the Florida Keys, where a hurricane warning has been issued.
Isaac poses a threat to Florida at least through Tuesday as forecasters said it could eventually hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of nearly 100 mph .
Forecast models showed Isaac likely won’t hit Tampa head-on but could lash the city with pelting rain and strong winds just as the convention ramps up. As a precaution convention officials called off most events until the storm passes, postponing most of the schedule until Tuesday afternoon.
In Key West, residents fastened plywood to windows and girded for the storm as forecasters predicted worsening conditions throughout the day as the storm neared. Before dawn Sunday, the storm was centered off the north coast of Cuba about 35 miles northeast of Canagua, Cuba.
On Saturday, Isaac downed trees and power lines in Cuba and killed at least four people in Haiti.
For several hours on Saturday, Isaac pushed over Cuba after sweeping across Haiti’s southern peninsula, where it caused flooding, adding to the misery of a poor nation still trying to recover from the terrible 2010 earthquake.
Isaac’s center made a landfall just before midday Saturday near the far-eastern tip of Cuba, downing trees and power lines. In the picturesque city of Baracoa, the storm surge flooded the seaside Malecon and a block inland, destroying two homes.
In Haiti, the Grise River overflowed north of Port-au-Prince, sending chocolate-brown water spilling through the sprawling shantytown of Cite Soleil, where many people grabbed what possessions they could and carried them on their heads, wading through waist-deep water.
“From last night, we’re in misery,” said Cite Soleil resident Jean-Gymar Joseph. “All our children are sleeping in the mud, in the rain.”
Scores of tents in quake settlements collapsed. In a roadside lot in Cite Soleil, the dozens of tents and shelters provided by international groups after the earthquake were tossed to the ground like pieces of crumpled paper, and the occupants tried to save their belongings.
“They promised they were going to build us a sturdy home and it never came,” Jean-Robert Sauviren, an unemployed 63-year-old father of six said as he stood barefoot in the water and held aloft his arms. “Maybe we don’t deserve anything.”
Ricknel Charles, a 42-year-old pastor, sheltered some 50 displaced people in his church.
“This is the only thing I can do for them: give them a place to sleep,” Charles said.
About 300 homes in Cite Soleil lost their roofs or were flooded three feet (one meter) deep, according to Rachel Brumbaugh, operation manager for the U.S. nonprofit group World Vision.
Doctors Without Borders said it anticipated a spike in cholera cases due to flooding and it was preparing to receive more patients.
After hitting land near the easternmost tip of Cuba on Saturday, Isaac’s center spent just a few hours over the island before reemerging into the water.
In Baracoa, Cuba, authorities cut off electricity as a preventive measure. Civil defense officials patrolled the streets and told onlookers to be careful as they gawked at the powerful surf kicked up by the storm. Waves crashing against the seawall sent spray high into the air and deposited rocks and other debris on land.
Dariel Villares and a cousin who lives next door lost their seaside homes.
“A high wave came and knocked down both walls: mine and my cousin’s,” Villares said. “Now we’re removing everything of value.”
There were no reports of fatalities, Red Cross worker Javier de la Cruz said.
Flooding was reported in low-lying coastal areas and 230 people were in emergency shelters, according to state TV.
In central Cuba, far to the west of Baracoa, the Sol Cayo Coco beach resort moved guests out of ground floor rooms. Intermittent rains and gusty winds buffeted Havana, 560 miles (900 kilometers) away.
Cuba has a highly organized civil defense system that goes door-to-door to enforce evacuations of at-risk areas, largely averting casualties from storms even when they cause major flooding and significant damage to crops.
Near the island’s southeastern tip, the U.S. military suspended ferry service at the Guantanamo Bay naval base and bunked guards inside prison facilities, but operations were returning to normal by late afternoon.
“The bad weather did not materialize here as tropical storm Isaac turned away,” Navy Capt. Robert Durand said.
Authorities in the Dominican Republic evacuated nearly 7,800 people from low-lying areas, and at least 10 rural settlements were cut off by flooding, according to Juan Manuel Mendez, director of rescue teams. Power was knocked out in parts of the capital, Santo Domingo.
There were no reports of injuries, but 49 homes across the country were destroyed.