Ernesto to become hurricane and hit Florida

Tropical Storm Ernesto moved over open water Tuesday after drenching eastern Cuba and began strengthening on a northbound track that forecasters said could take it to Florida as a hurricane by the evening.

Click here to see photographs of Ernesto's power

Ernesto became the Atlantic season's first hurricane Sunday morning, then weakened to a mere storm after dumping rain on Haiti's denuded mountains. It was expected to regain strength after passing over Cuba, the AP reports.

So far, Ernesto has caused little damage and only one lost life - a woman who was swept away by floods on a Haitian island. But forecasters warned that the storm will likely strengthen again to a dangerous hurricane once it moves over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

"I don't want anyone to overly focus on the downgrading ... It has a good chance to regain hurricane status," said Max Mayfield, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

At 5 a.m. EDT (0900GMT), Ernesto was over open water just off Cuba's northern coast, about 370 kilometers (about 230 miles) southeast of Key West, Florida, and about 380 kilometers (235 miles) south-southeast of Miami.

Moving toward the west-northwest at near 14 mph (22 kph), with maximum sustained winds near 45 mph (65 kph), the center of Ernesto was expected to be near the Florida Keys or southeast Florida by Tuesday evening.

"Ernesto Has Left," the Communist Party daily Granma said in a front page headline. The story said rains continued over eastern Cuba and were expected to move westward over the island's central section early Tuesday.

Thousands were evacuated in Cuba, where the communist government regularly undertakes mass evacuations before major storms to minimize loss of life. There were no reports of major damage, but state television showed flooding in some eastern parts of the island.

The storm dropped 194 millimeters (almost 8 inches) of water in the extreme southeastern province of Guantanamo on Monday, authorities said. Some reservoirs in the drought-plagued area were filled to 100 percent for the first time in a decade, Granma newspaper said.

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 on Monday 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, and national commercial flights were suspended.

None of the prisoners 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.

Forecasters warned that Ernesto could hit Florida by Wednesday. Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday urged residents to make preparations and not wait until the storm is upgraded to hurricane. It's a familiar theme, considering seven hurricanes have hit Florida and one has brushed by in the past two years.

"My suggestion: Take this storm very seriously. A hurricane is a hurricane," said Bush, urging people to have 72 hours worth of supplies.

Forecasters said the storm could go on to menace the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.

Only one death was reported so far: a woman who drowned on Vache island, off Haiti's south coast, said Elizabeth Verluyten, a disaster management coordinator in the country for the Pan American Health Organization.

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, but no injuries or deaths were reported. Several homes were damaged in landslides and by falling trees, and flood and landslide advisories remained in effect.

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.