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Tropical Storm Fay pounds Cuba with torrential rain

Tropical Storm Fay pounded Cuba with torrential rain and wind Monday, prompting authorities to evacuate dozens of low-lying communities, cancel carnival celebrations in a central of province and warn of flooding.

Forecasters said Fay, which earlier left at least five people dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was on a path to cross Cuba early Monday and then pass near the Florida Keys Monday night. Florida declared a state of emergency and urged visitors to leave the Keys.

A hurricane warning was issued for the capital, Havana, and eastward to Cuba's central Sancti Spiritus province. A warning means a hurricane is possible within 36 hours.

Cuban state media reported little damage or major flooding so far, but authorities in four provinces evacuated nearly 5,000 residents from low-lying communities and pulled fishing boats from the water. Officials also set up temporary shelters and food distribution centers.

In central Cienfuegos province, officials suspended traditional carnival celebrations. State media said authorities were ready to "protect" the 24,000 foreign tourists in the famous beach resort of Varadero, but provided no more details.

Winds damaged the roofs of some homes in little-populated areas and water accumulated on roads and highways.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Fay is expected to dump up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) of rain on Cuba, with 12 inches (30 centimeters) in isolated cases. It warned that this much rain could produce flash floods and mudslides.

Jose Rubiera, Cuba's chief meteorologist, said the storm was expected to gain force and could near hurricane strength before crossing over Cuba.

In the city of Niquero, near the southern coast and one of the hardest-hit areas, authorities converted a hotel into a shelter for evacuees.

"It's raining intensely, but the wind comes and goes," said a receptionist at the Hotel Niquero, who said he was not authorized to have his name appear in the foreign press.

Officials also suspended some ferry service on Isla de la Juventud, an island off Cuba's southern coast. In the southeastern province of Granma, a banana plantation sustained minor flooding and storm winds damaged some homes, state media reported.

At 2 a.m. EDT (0600GMT), Fay was centered about 110 miles (177 kilometers) southeast of Havana and 180 miles (270 kilometers) south-southeast of Key West, Florida, according to the hurricane center.

It had maximum sustained winds near 50 mph (81 kph) and was moving northwest near 13 mph (21 kph).

Authorities in the Florida Keys closed schools, opened shelters and urged visitors to leave. Residents and tourists, however, seemed in no hurry to evacuate.

Traffic leaving Key West and the Lower Keys on Sunday afternoon was light but steady as the sky darkened with storm clouds and the National Weather Service issued watches and warnings.

Fay, the sixth storm of the 2008 Atlantic season, was slowing down Sunday night and moving erratically, but forecasters still expected it to strengthen slowly to a hurricane.