By ANITA SNOW | Associated Press Writer
Hurricane Dennis lashed Cuba on its way to the Gulf of Mexico and the United States Friday, killing at least 10 people as it raked the Caribbean’s largest island with torrential rains and 135 mph winds and forced thousands to flee the Florida Keys.
Winds and heaving surf tossed a lifeguard tower into the sea and the spray towered over a razor-wire fence at the U.S. detention camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, on the island’s eastern end.
“It’s arrived, with all its diabolical force,” President Fidel Castro said of the Category 4 hurricane during an appearance on state television Friday afternoon. He said there were 10 deaths in southeastern Cuba — eight in Granma province and two in Santiago.
Another five people were earlier reported killed in Haiti, bringing the known overall death toll for the Caribbean to 15.
Top Cuban meteorologist Jose Ruberiea called Dennis an “extremely dangerous” storm.
An evacuation order was in effect in the Florida Keys, where officials feared Dennis could hit the island chain on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Tornadoes could develop there, the U.S. Hurricane Center said Friday afternoon.
A Category 4 storm that strengthened Friday to 150 mph winds before weakening slightly, Dennis killed five people in Haiti, stranded tens of thousands, collapsed bridges, triggered landslides, inundated homes and blocked roads with downed power lines and trees in Haiti and Jamaica.
The eye made landfall on central Cuba’s southern coast a second time shortly before 5 p.m. Friday was near the central provincial city of Santa Clara, about 95 miles east-southeast of Havana and about 145 miles south-southeast of Key West. Overnight, Dennis swiped a sparsely populated Cuban cape at Cabo Cruz jutting out far west.
More than 600,000 people left their homes to stay at government shelters or with family and friends, Cuban civil defense officials said.
Hurricane-force winds extended 65 miles with tropical storm force winds stretching another 160 miles. Dennis was moving northwest near 17 mph.
The first hurricane of the season sideswiped Haiti’s southwestern peninsula and Jamaica’s south and east coasts Thursday and dumped rain on the Dominican Republic.
In Jamaica, a rescue helicopter was to airlift food and emergency supplies to hundreds of stranded islanders in at least seven eastern towns cut off by knee-deep floodwaters, said Nadene Newsome, spokeswoman for the country’s emergency management office.
“Flooding has affected every parish of the island and it will increase as long as the rain continues throughout the day” Friday, she said.
Although Dennis was losing some strength as it passed over Cuba, it was expected to remain a major hurricane as it emerged over the Florida Straits and into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico later Friday evening.
Forecasters predict the storm will hit the United States anywhere from Florida to Louisiana by Sunday or Monday, the fourth storm in as many weeks to disrupt oil production.
The lower Florida Keys, including Key West, were on hurricane warning, while the southern part of the state, including Miami and Naples, were on tropical storm warning.
A hurricane watch was issued for portions of the northeastern U.S. Gulf Coast from the Steinhatchee River westward to the mouth of the Pearl River.
The Cayman Islands, spared from a direct hit by the storm’s overnight turn to the west, downgraded its hurricane warning Friday to a tropical storm watch.
Also largely spared was the U.S. detention camp on Cuba’s extreme southeast end, holding about 520 terror suspects.
Heaving surf tore away a lifeguard tower at Windmill Beach and storm force winds reaching 40 mph destroyed a bus shelter. A few power lines and tree branches were knocked down and there was minor flooding.
“Actually, everybody fared real well,” said Navy Cmdr. Anne Reese.
American troops fixed metal shutters over the steel mesh windows of some prison cells overlooking the sea at Camp Delta, which is just 150 yards from the ocean.
Hurricane Center forecasters warned Cuba’s southeast Sierra Maestra Mountains could get up to 15 inches of rain, with about 10 inches falling on Jamaica’s coffee-producing Blue Mountains.
In Haiti, young men were charging US$2 to carry travelers and their possessions across the Grand Goave River, which overflowed and caused 40 131 feet of a 328-foot bridge to collapse Thursday, cutting off Haiti’s southwestern peninsula.
An Associated Press Television News Reporter saw four people die when the bridge collapsed. Rescue workers were looking for missing people and feared the death toll would rise.
Fristino Fleurinon, 18, said he carried at least 10 people across the river on his shoulders.
“People have to sell their things, and they have to come and go back to where they came from,” he said.
Others refused to pay and struggled to carry tools, sacks of rice and animals across. One man’s five goats were swept away as he tried to cross. Another man carried a baby through the waist-deep water.
Elsewhere on the deforested island, wind gusts uprooted a palm tree and flung it into a mud hut, killing a fifth person in the southern town of Les Cayes, the Red Cross said.
In Jamaica, floods and debris blocked the road leading from the capital, Kingston, to the storm-battered east around Yallahs town.
A man there narrowly escaped from a car swept away by fast-flowing floodwater on Wednesday night, a day before the hurricane passed.
In Cuba’s southern city of Cienfuegos, expected to bear much of the storm’s brunt, residents rushed Friday morning to board up windows with anything to hand: plywood, metal sheeting ó even cardboard.
“Every time hurricanes pass through, we suffer because we are at the southernmost point,” said Antonio Leonardo. “With a hurricane as strong as this one, there’s a lot of fear of losing one’s home.”
Residents fled inland on bicycle and on foot, some carrying pet dogs. Long lines formed at gas stations and at government ration centers distributing bread.
Earlier in the week, hundreds of tourists staying in the keys along the southern coast were taken to hotels in Havana and northern Varadero beach resort. Thousands of students at government boarding schools were sent home, and livestock moved to higher ground.
The largest and most populous Caribbean island with 11.2 million people, Cuba suffers few hurricane casualties because the government cautiously evacuates people en masse, sometimes forcefully.
The hurricane center’s lead forecaster, Martin Nelson, said it was the first time the Atlantic hurricane season had four named storms this early since record-keeping began in 1851. The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
Last year, four catastrophic hurricanes ó Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne ó tore through the Caribbean with a collective ferocity not seen in years, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.
Associated Press writers Stevenson Jacobs in Morant Bay, Jamaica, Leonardo Aldridge in Les Cayes, Haiti, Ben Fox at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba, and Vanessa Arrington in Cienfuegos, Cuba contributed to this report.