Hurricane Michelle struck Cuba's southern coastline Sunday and is lashing the island with maximum sustained winds of 215 kilometers an hour. Michelle came ashore as an extremely dangerous Category Four storm on a 1-5 scale.
U.S. National Hurricane Center meteorologist Ed Rappaport compares Michelle to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida in 1992. "Unfortunately, with Category Four status, we are talking about a hurricane that is just under the strength of hurricane Andrew," he said. "We can hope that all the preparations have been made. There is a chance of a disaster there."
Michelle's center is expected to pass east of Havana before entering the Florida straits. Officials say the storm could prove to be the worst to strike the island in 50 years.
Cuban authorities mounted a massive evacuation effort in advance of the storm, moving nearly half a million people from exposed regions, including more than 150,000 from the capital, where it is feared that high winds and torrential rains could cause buildings to collapse. Large numbers of livestock have also been herded to higher ground in the island's western agricultural regions.
The hurricane's winds are expected to ease as the storm passes over Cuba. Meteorologist Ed Rappaport says Michelle's movement has doubled over the last 24 hours. "The system has turned towards the northeast and is beginning to accelerate," he explained Sunday. "We expect the forward speed to increase even further during the next 12-24 hours, taking the system into the Straits of Florida during the overnight hours."
Michelle is expected to pass through the Florida Straits, sparing Florida a direct hit. Nevertheless, Florida Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency in the state and a mandatory evacuation has been ordered in the Florida Keys.