Fay Skims Cuba, Sets Sights On Florida

This false-color satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Tropical Storm Fay over Cuba at 2: 45 a.m. EDT Monday Aug. 18, 2008. (AP Photo/NASA)
AP Photo/NASA
Tropical Storm Fay spared Havana as it sped across Cuba's Bay of Pigs and took aim at Florida on Monday. Forecasters said it could likely reach hurricane strength before hitting the U.S. mainland.

Fay is blamed for at least seven reported deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but appeared to do minimal damage to Cuba despite torrential rain southeast of the capital. Cuban authorities evacuated dozens of low-lying communities, but their worst fears were not realized - a direct hit on Old Havana's dilapidated buildings.

Fay's center was expected to emerge into the Florida Straits in the next few hours and could be "very near" the Keys by Monday night, the Hurricane Center said. The storm was expected to strengthen over the next 24 hours.

At 11 a.m. EDT Monday, Fay was centered 70 miles southeast of Key West. It had maximum winds of 60 mph and was moving northwest near 13 mph.

All the doors are closed, windows are boarded up and there aren't many people here at all, reported CBS' The Early Show weather reporter Dave Price from Key West Monday morning.

Florida has declared a state of emergency and 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.

Anywhere from 4 to 10 inches of rain are possible, so flooding is a threat even far from where the center comes ashore, said Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

"We don't want people to focus on the exact track. This is a broad, really diffuse storm. All the Florida Keys and all the Florida peninsula are going to feel the effects of this storm, no matter where the center makes landfall," he said. "We don't want people to downplay this."

Tourists were urged to evacuate but many bars and restaurants were doing business, even if crowds were considerably thinner than typical for this time of year.

Willie Dykes, 58, and friend Essy Pastrana, 48, live on a sailboat in Key West, and said they weren't going anywhere. The pair was filling up gas cans Monday morning and buying supplies like food, water and whiskey.

"We're gonna ride it out," Dykes said, his fluffy white beard blowing sideways in the wind. "We're not worried about it. We've seen this movie before."

Further north in the Keys town of Marathon, Home Depot assistant manager Denis Lee said it seemed like a normal Monday despite the approaching storm.

"Everybody seems to be acting like this is a non-event," Lee said.

At the Stuffed Pig restaurant in Marathon, about a dozen locals had breakfast Monday morning, not worried but prepared for the storm.

"We always prepare, we don't take it lightly," owner Michael Cinque said. "We might roll down the shutters. We got built-in generators."

The last plane left Key West International Airport at about 9:30 a.m. with 19 people aboard, headed to Fort Lauderdale. The airport shut down at half hour later. The last Greyhound bus also left Key West Monday morning nearly empty with just 15 people aboard.

A hurricane watch was in effect for most of the Keys and along Florida's west coast.

Early Monday, a tropical storm warning was issued for Florida's east coast from Sebastian Inlet southward and along Florida's west coast from Bonita Beach southward, including Lake Okeechobee.

A tropical storm warning also remained in effect for the entire Florida Keys. A watch means those conditions might occur within 36 hours. A warning means those conditions are expected within 24 hours.

Officials in the Keys and elsewhere opened shelters and encouraged or ordered people living in low-lying areas and on boats to evacuate. Schools in the Keys were to be closed Monday and Tuesday.

Residents on Florida's Gulf coast were told to make preparations as forecasters said Fay could approach that area Tuesday as a Category 1 storm, with winds from 74 to 95 mph.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain canceled a Monday fundraiser in Miami as a precaution, but he was still expected to speak at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Orlando.

His presumptive Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, canceled events Sunday in Fort Myers, Clearwater and Tampa. He is scheduled to speak at the VFW on Tuesday.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Saturday as an emergency operations center opened in Tallahassee. He said 9,000 Florida National Guard troops were available, but only 500 were on active duty Sunday.

Key West was last seriously affected by a hurricane in 2005, when Category 3 Wilma sped past. The town escaped widespread wind damage, but a storm surge flooded hundreds of homes and some businesses. The deadliest storm to hit the island was a Category 4 hurricane in 1919 that killed up to 900 people, many of them offshore on ships that sank.

Bus Accident In Haiti Raises Death Toll

An overloaded bus overturned while trying to drive across a river surging with rain from Tropical Storm Fay, sweeping passengers into the water, officials said.

The United Nations said 2 people were killed as a result of the accident, denying reports that dozens of people were missing and presumed dead.

The bus was trying to cross the Riviere Glace on Haiti's southern peninsula when it flipped.

At least 23 people were rescued from the river, said Silvera Guillaume, the coordinator for Haiti's civil protection department in the area.

Witnesses said at least two other buses crossed the river safely just before the third flipped. David Pierre, one of three mayors of Beaumont, the town where the incident happened, told Radio Metropole that officials have been trying to get a bridge built in the area for years because of flooding.

Five others died from flooding in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Cuba Spared The Worst

Jose Rubiera, Cuba's chief meteorologist, said Fay slammed into Cuba near the little-populated Peninsula de Zapata close to the Bay of Pigs, and sped across the island. He expected it to be out to sea within a few hours, where he said it could likely move to hurricane strength and threaten Florida.

Cuban state media reported little damage or major flooding so far, but authorities in four provinces evacuated nearly 5,000 residents 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 of rain on Cuba, with 12 inches in isolated cases. It warned that this much rain could produce flash floods and mudslides.

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.