HAVANA – Tropical Storm Ernesto drenched eastern Cuba on Monday, then aimed north toward the warm waters of the open Caribbean sea and Florida where forecasters expected it to hit shore as a hurricane.
Ernesto became the Atlantic season's first hurricane Sunday morning, then weakened to a tropical storm after dumping rain on Haiti's denuded mountains. It was expected to regain strength after passing over Cuba near the prison at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay where about 445 inmates were safe inside their windowless or storm-hardened cells.
So far, Ernesto has caused little damage and one lost life — a woman who was swept away by floods on a Haitian island. But forecasters warned the storm will likely strengthen again to a dangerous hurricane once it moves over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Thousands were evacuated ahead of the storm in Cuba, where the communist government regularly undertakes mass evacuations before tropical storms and hurricanes to minimize injury and loss of life. There were no reports of damage.
Cubans moved cattle to higher ground, tourists were evacuated from hotels in the southeastern province of Granma and baseball games, including a pre-Olympic qualifier between the United States and Mexico, were rescheduled for earlier in the day. Train service across the country was also stopped while the storm passes.
None of the prisoners being held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay because of suspected links to al-Qaida or the Taliban were exposed to the weather. For the last three years, detainees have been kept in cells without windows or with a single window that can be covered with a heavy steel hurricane shutter. The cells replaced the open steel cages where prisoners were initially held.
Military personnel, except for guards and people in other critical jobs, were told to stay in their quarters until the storm passed, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Department of Defense spokesman.
Ernesto was causing heavy rains in localized areas of eastern Cuba, but the storm's winds had diminished greatly as it started moving across land, leading Cuban meteorologist Jose Rubiera announced on state television. The storm could return to open ocean north of Cuba as early as Monday night, Rubiera said.
In a four-hour period early Monday, the storm dropped 3.3 inches of water in the province of Guantanamo, authorities said.
Forecasters warned that in three days, Ernesto could hit anywhere in Florida.
In Haiti, heavy rains in some mountain areas raised fears of flash floods in the heavily deforested country. But only one death was reported — a woman who drowned Sunday on Vache island, off Haiti's south coast, said Elizabeth Verluyten, a disaster management coordinator in the country for the Pan American Health Organization.
People put goats and cows into shelters, fishermen pulled nets ashore and Haitian officials went on the radio to warn people in flimsy shantytowns to seek shelter in schools and churches as the storm approached. As the storm passed, government and relief officials planned to fly over affected areas to assess any damage, Verluyten said.
In the neighboring Dominican Republic, heavy rains swelled rivers and flooded more than 400 houses in the capital of Santo Domingo and nearby San Cristobal province, displacing 1,656 people, Juan Manuel Mendez of the National Emergency Commission said Monday.
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.