HAVANA – Tropical Storm Ernesto hit Cuba west of the U.S. naval air base at Guantanamo on Monday after killing one person Haiti as it stayed on track toward Florida, where forecasters expect it to strengthen into a hurricane.
Cuba ramped up emergency preparations before the fifth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season moved ashore about 20 miles west of Guantanamo with top sustained winds dropping to near 40 mph.
At 11 a.m. EDT, Ernesto was about 35 miles west of Guantanamo, moving northwest at 12 mph, and forecasters expected it to strengthen again once it reached the warm waters north of Cuba.
An emergency was declared in Florida and tourists were ordered to evacuate the Florida Keys as forecasters issued a hurricane watch for the southern peninsula of Florida.
"We do expect it to reach the Gulf, maybe as a Category 1 hurricane, possibly a Category 2," said John Cangialosi, a meteorologist with U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. "It's difficult to say where it will be, but in three days we're projecting it anywhere from the eastern Gulf near the Florida panhandle to the western Bahamas."
Ernesto became the Atlantic season's first hurricane on Sunday morning with maximum sustained winds of about 75 mph before weakening Monday.
Apparently diminished by Haiti's mountainous southwestern peninsula, Ernesto was expected to regain strength after traversing Cuba's rough terrain.
"The center of Tropical Storm Ernesto has touched land in Cuba," leading Cuban meteorologist Jose Rubiera announced on state television.
Ernesto dumped heavy rain in localized areas of eastern Cuba, but the storm's winds had diminished greatly as it started moving across land, Rubiera said.
There were no immediate reports of damage or injury in Cuba, where the communist government regularly undertakes mass evacuations before tropical storms and hurricanes to minimize injury and loss of life.
The government changed a hurricane warning for six eastern provinces in Cuba to a tropical storm warning, and state TV urged precautions. Cattle were moved to higher ground, tourists were evacuated from hotels in the southeastern province of Granma, and baseball games scheduled for Sunday night in Havana were played earlier in the day.
A tropical storm warning was in effect for Jamaica and the central Bahamas.
Cruise ship companies said they were diverting several liners to avoid the storm.
In Haiti, Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, director of the civil protection agency, said one person on Vache island off Haiti's south coast died in the storm, but she could not give details.
Skies darkened as wind gusts swayed palm trees in Les Cayes, 100 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince. People put goats and cows into shelters, and fishermen pulled nets ashore.
Forecasters said up to 20 inches of rain could fall in some mountain areas of Haiti, raising fears of flash floods in the heavily deforested country.
"The only thing we can do is just wait and keep our fingers crossed," said Frantz Gregoire, 42, owner of the Bay Club, a thatch-roofed seaside restaurant. He said he would send his workers home if the storm worsened.
Haitian officials went on the radio to warn people in coastal shantytowns to seek shelter in schools and churches and they evacuated some low-lying areas in the northwestern city of Gonaives, which was devastated by floods during Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004.