Powerful Hurricane Michelle lashes Cuba


Hurricane Michelle, the worst storm to hit Cuba since 1944, pounded the Caribbean's largest island with torrential rain and fierce winds tonight as nearly 600,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

Michelle, described by experts as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, gathered speed overnight and was packing winds of 217 kilometres per hour as it churned into Cuba's southern coast.

As a much weaker storm in previous days, it killed 10 people, left 26 missing and made thousands homeless in Central America.

At 7.00 p.m. Irish time the eye of the hurricane was passing east of the Isle of Youth, 48 kilometres off Cuba's southern coast, and heading for the southern Zapata Peninsula and the central provinces of Matanzas, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos, Cuba's Weather Institute said.

Michelle was expected to lose some strength as it crossed over central Cuba's mountainous zone. It was predicted to veer northeast on Monday into the Florida Straits and toward the Bahamas, dealing southern Florida a glancing blow.

A mandatory evacuation was ordered for the Florida Keys.

Since morning, torrential rains, high winds and 5-metre waves hammered the Isle of Youth. Electricity was cut, and phone lines to the island went down at mid-morning.

Having moved northeast overnight, Michelle was set to cross the center of Cuba and was expected to have a severe impact on Havana, which is next to Matanzas province.

"It's coming right over us, said Jose Rubiera," the Cuban Weather Institute's chief meteorologist. "The eye is getting closer.... It could even get stronger as it approaches us."

Civil Defense officials said 576,000 people had already been evacuated to safe shelters, and 625,000 animals were also moved. They urged Cubans to stay at home and watch out for loose power cables, the main cause of death in previous hurricanes.

In Havana, home to 2 million of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants, residents on Saturday formed large lines to buy food and gasoline, cleaned debris off the streets, taped up the windows of their homes, tied down loose roofing and covered holes with boards.

Thousands were evacuated from the dilapidated coastal capital's danger zones near the sea and in Old Havana.

The storm already has dumped heavy rains that flooded rivers and triggered mudslides across much of Central America, leaving at least 12 people dead and thousands homeless.

In Costa Rica, where a state of emergency was declared Friday, authorities said the rains brought by Michelle caused about 10 million dollars in infrastructure damage, as well as extensive flooding in the north and along the Pacific coast.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially stretches from June through November. Late-season storms commonly form in the south-central to southwestern Caribbean and typically are slow-moving, giving them more time to gather force, dump heavy rains and trigger deadly floods.

Hurricane Mitch killed some 20,000 people and causing some 6.5 billion dollars in damage after striking Central America on October 26th, 1998.