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Friday, October 15, 1999 Published at 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK

World: Americas

Hurricane Irene lashes Cuba

Irene has left roads blocked and buildings in danger of collapse

More than 100,000 people in Cuba have been evacuated from low-lying areas as Hurricane Irene moves across the island.

The BBC's Malcolm Brabant: "Projections suggest Irene may hit Florida's Gulf coast over the weekend"
The hurricane has been battering southern Cuba with heavy winds and rains but has switched direction to put the capital Havana at risk.

In the capital, home to 2 million of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants, there were reports that a number of buildings had collapsed in the sea-front zone and some roads were blocked by fallen trees and lamp-posts.

[ image: Havana residents queued in the rain to stock up on supplies]
Havana residents queued in the rain to stock up on supplies
Over 1,000 people have been evacuated from rickety buildings deemed to be in danger of collapse.

With officials forecasting flooding in coastal areas around Havana, President Fidel Castro met civil defence officials to co-ordinate emergency measures.

He praised efforts to evacuate citizens and protect crops crucial to the island's economy.

In the province of Pinar del Rio, workers were labouring to seal warehouses storing the tobacco leaves grown to make Cuba's cigars, while cattle and livestock were moved to higher ground.

Florida under threat

At 2100 GMT on Thursday, Irene was centred south-west of Havana and was moving north-east at about 7 mph (11 kph). It was expected to take a more northerly track later.

A hurricane warning has also been issued for southern parts of Florida, which is already being drenched by heavy rains spun off from the hurricane.

Irene, which had sustained winds of 75mph on Thursday, is expected to hit the Florida coast on Sunday north of Tampa with winds nearing 95mph.

Low pressure associated with the hurricane is also causing heavy rain across parts of Mexico which is already struggling to cope after last week's flooding and mudslides.

[ image: Residents in Pinar del Rio sought shelter in a school]
Residents in Pinar del Rio sought shelter in a school
This is the region's ninth hurricane this season, and the 51st in Cuba's history.

Irene is the most serious weather system to hit Cuba since last year's Hurricane Georges, which damaged agriculture and killed at least six people on the island.

Six to 10 inches of rain have fallen in the Isla de la Juventud municipality, and other major populated areas including Matanzas and the beach resort of Varadero.

School has been suspended in the western provinces, tourists have been evacuated from some resorts on the coast, and some flights on the island have been cancelled as a preventive measure.

US forecasters said they had been unable to properly monitor the storm's progress since Wednesday night because of restrictions on the flights of US aircraft into airspace around Cuba.

The restriction was imposed by the Pentagon because of long-strained ties between Washington and the communist-ruled island.

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Internet Links

Cuban Institute of Meteorology (in Spanish)

US National Hurricane Centre

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