Hurricane Lili closes in on Cuba
HAVANA, Oct 17 (AFP) - Hurricane Lili closed in on Cuba Thursday, forcing cancellation of all commercial flights and the evacuation of thousands of residents near buildings deemed likely to collapse.
Around 2100 GMT the storm was 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Cuba moving north-northeast at 19 kilometers (12 miles) an hour with average winds of 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour, weather officials said.
Trees were swaying and heavy rains were pounding Matanzas province and other areas in the center of the mountainous Caribbean country of 11 million people.
All domestic and international flights to and from Cuba were canceled, according to Cuban TV reports.
Forecasters said the storm would follow a track across central-to-western Cuba toward densely populated Havana and the Pinar del Rio provinces.
Cuban radio repeatedly issued safety tips and announced the addresses of shelters set up for evacuees in this city, home to thousands of structurally weak homes, many of them crumbling colonial-era abodes hundreds of years old.
On Wednesday the Havana civil defense council ordered evacuation of some 88,000 residents in or near 6,000 buildings at risk for cave-ins under heavy winds and rain.
Workers in areas where flooding could be a problem were ordered home and classes were suspended as Havana residents rushed to buy emergency supplies such as food, candles and batteries before being hit by the brunt of the storm.
US meteorologists warned that western and central Cuba and portions of Central America could be hit with 15 to 30 centimeters (six to 12 inches) of additional rain before the storm heads up the Florida Straits toward the Florida Keys, the chain of small islands snaking south from the US state.
"It's tracking toward us," said Billy Wagner, the Keys emergency coordinator. "We're definitely under the gun."
In Miami, Florida, emergency services were put on phase two alert, one step shy of permanent alert.
Havana was last hit by a hurricane in 1985 when Kate left three people dead.
Cuba's worst storm was Hurricane Flora in 1963, which pummeled the island for four days, killing more then 1,200 people.
Here in Havana, many residents seemed unaware that October hurricanes often are the season's strongest: an October hurricane has not ripped through the island in 20 years.
October hurricanes killed 1,000 people in 1926 and 1944.
amu-mb/jsr/xb AFP 172326
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