Thousands of Cubans flee Hurricane Michelle

 

Hurricane Michelle, the most powerful storm to barrel toward Cuba in the past half-century, was set to make landfall on the island early today, prompting authorities to evacuate 150,000 people from the crowded capital of Havana.

Forecasters from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami labeled the category four storm "extremely dangerous."

Hurricane warnings extended across central and western Cuba as some compared Michelle ominously to a November 9th, 1932, storm that flattened the town of Santa Cruz del Sur and killed some 3,000 people.

"It's been 50 years since we've had a high-powered hurricane in Cuba, and the population should prepare itself for what's coming," Mr Jose Rubiera, head of forecasting for Cuba's meteorological institute, said on national television.

At 6 a.m. Irish time, a hurricane warning was in effect for western Cuba from Pinar del Rio eastward to Ciego de Avila.

Michelle chugged toward Cuba on a path that makes a direct hit on Havana, where building collapses after storms are major seasonal concerns among its more than two million residents.

The eye of the hurricane was located 325 kilometers south-southwest of Havana. Michelle ambled toward the north-northeast early today at around 8 kilometers per hour, with maximum sustained winds measuring 215 kilometers per hour.

Rainfall totaling 25-50 centimeters (10-20 inches) was expected in the areas along the hurricane's path, the NHC said.

Worried Havana residents lined up at the few stores open yesterday to stock up on food in intermittent rain and light winds.

Cuban officials have cancelled all national and international flights until tomorrow.

In the southern United States, where the hurricane was forecast to make landfall tomorrow, the lower Florida Keys were under an evacuation order.

AFP