By Anthony Boadle: Source: Reuters
HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Dennis, an extremely dangerous storm with 135-mph (215-kph) winds, churned toward central Cuba on Friday on track for the Florida Panhandle after causing deadly floods in Haiti and mudslides in Jamaica.Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said the eye of Dennis would hit Cuba later on Friday and head into the Gulf of Mexico, where U.S. oil companies prepared for a possible threat to oil and gas rigs.
Hurricane winds and heavy rainfall knocked down power lines and communication towers in southeastern Cuba, but the island of 11 million braced for worse as Dennis headed for landfall near the colonial town of Trinidad.
Cuba suspended all school classes and evacuated 200,000 people from coastal areas, including hundreds of tourists on holiday on outlying islands.
Dennis was expected to barrel through central Cuba and head toward Cuba’s main beach resort of Varadero, east of Havana.
As it took aim at the U.S. coast, residents were ordered to evacuate Key West and the lower part of the Florida Keys, an island chain connected to the southern tip of mainland Florida by a single highway.
The storm was expected to brush past the Keys on Saturday and pass close to key oil and gas fields off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, before slamming ashore on Sunday night along the Florida Panhandle, which was hammered by Hurricane Ivan last September.
NASA decided on Friday to leave space shuttle Discovery on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but continued to watch Dennis closely. A decision to roll Discovery back to its hangar would have delayed the scheduled Wednesday launch of the first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster in 2003.
NASA managers said they expected only a 15 percent chance of winds up to 46 mph (74 kph) at the launch site.
At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), the center of Dennis was 230 miles (370 km) southeast of Havana and had slowed its northwest movement to 12 mph (19 kph), the hurricane center said.
Dennis strengthened rapidly on Thursday to a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale and is capable of causing extreme damage.