Cuban authorities begins evacuating tourists because of Wilma

Cuban authorities began evacuating tourists along white-sand beaches east of Havana on Wednesday and mobilized thousands of soldiers to help residents hunker down as Hurricane Wilma gathered force.

By nightfall Wednesday, Cuban authorities had upgraded storm warnings to maximum alerts in the western provinces of Pinar del Rнo and Havana, as well as for the capital city of Havana and the Isle of Youth to the south. Thousands of state troops were dispatched to help evacuate residents in precarious homes and low-lying areas and to transport livestock to safety.

While meteorologists did not expect the island to take a direct hit, they warned the mammoth storm would drop sheets of rain. Even moderate but sustained rains translate into a threat for Havana's historic center, where elaborate colonial-era structures are neglected in a cash-starved economy.

With heavy downpours on the island's eastern tip, the Cuban government announced it had evacuated 9,000 residents in and around Santiago de Cuba. There were no reports of storm-related deaths, although unrelenting rains damaged about 200 houses.

From Havana, the country's Civil Defense corps asked residents to stay inside once the storm hits.

"We advise [residents] not to touch fallen cables, not to cross rivers or rising washes, nor bridges that risk collapse," the government said in a communique.

On its way to Cuba, Wilma dropped heavy rain on the Cayman Islands, forcing schools and businesses to close and causing flooding of some roads. Winds brought heavy waves to the south and west coasts of south Cayman Island, according to Dominic Tonner, deputy editor of the Cayman Observer.

The Ministry of Education announced that all government and private schools on Grand Cayman would remain closed today. Schools on Cayman Brac, however, will resume today.

Many businesses, including the Cayman Observer, were beginning to reopen Wednesday afternoon, Tonner said.

As the storm churned toward Mexico's Cancun resort, tourists packed the airport and MTV postponed its Video Music Awards Latin America ceremony, originally scheduled for Thursday at a seaside park south of the resort town, the Associated Press reports. I.L.

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