Image: Cars leaving Key West
Alan Diaz  /  AP
Motorists head out of Key West on Sunday after officials urged visitors to leave the string of low-lying islands ahead of Tropical Storm Fay.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/18/2008 5:40:40 AM ET 2008-08-18T09:40:40

Tropical Storm Fay pounded Cuba with torrential rain and wind Monday, prompting authorities to evacuate dozens of low-lying communities, cancel carnival celebrations in a central province and warn of flooding.

Forecasters said Fay was on a path to cross Cuba early Monday and then pass near the Florida Keys that night.

In Haiti, witnesses told Reuters that 50 children and adults died when a bus tried to cross a river swollen with rain from Fay, adding to the toll after five deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Saturday. A couple also drowned in the Jamaican capital Kingston when their car was caught in a flooded crossing.

A hurricane warning was issued for Cuba’s capital, Havana, and eastward to the island’s central Sancti Spiritus province. A warning means a hurricane is possible within 36 hours.

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.

"We've seen worse than this in Omaha," said Diego Sainz, who was visiting from Nebraska with his wife and friends. They had intended to leave Sunday but couldn't get a flight out.

Farther east in Marathon, Joseph Kirby listened to classical music while he leisurely packed up patio furniture and made sure no projectiles were lying around his mobile home. In the 14 years 70-year-old Kirby has lived in the Keys, he said he's only evacuated twice and said Tropical Storm Fay is nothing to worry about.

"It's so hard to leave. You have to worry about break-ins. If you're here, you can keep an eye on things," said Kirby, who gassed up both his cars and said he will leave if Fay strengthens to more than a Category 2 hurricane.

5,000 evacuated in Cuba
Cuban state media reported little damage or major flooding so far, but authorities in four provinces evacuated nearly 5,000 residents from low-lying communities 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 much rain could produce flash floods and mudslides.

Jose Rubiera, Cuba’s chief meteorologist, said the storm was expected to gain force and could near hurricane strength before crossing over Cuba.

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.

Leaving Key West
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.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was briefed Sunday on the storm by emergency officials after flying into Orlando for campaign events. A Monday fundraiser in Miami was canceled as a precaution.

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

Maria Perez, 50, of Key West, prayed at a town shrine known as The Grotto, where an etching on a stone reads, "As long as the Grotto stands, Key West will never again experience the full brunt of a hurricane." It was built in 1922 by nuns outside a Roman Catholic church, three years after a catastrophic storm. So far, the 86-year-old invocation has worked.

"I pray not to have the storm," Perez said. "I am not afraid."

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.

Sixth storm of the season
At 2 a.m. EDT, Fay was centered about 110 miles southeast of Havana and 180 miles south-southeast of Key West, Florida, according to the hurricane center.

It had maximum sustained winds near 50 mph and was moving northwest near 13 mph.

Fay, the sixth storm of the 2008 Atlantic season, was slowing down and moving erratically, but forecasters still expected it to strengthen slowly to a hurricane.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Florida prepares

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