Hurricane Michelle has entered the Florida Straits after pelting central Cuba with high winds and torrential rains. Florida officials have implemented emergency measures.
Michelle cut a diagonal path across central Cuba late Sunday, dumping more than 40 centimeters of rain in some parts of the island. The capital, Havana, was spared a direct hit, as the eye of the storm went ashore near the Bay of Pigs along Cuba's southern coast and then departed the island from Villa Clara Province, east of the capital.
Damage assessment in Cuba may take several days, but there is already evidence of disruption. Meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center in Miami report they lost telephone contact with their Cuban colleagues late Sunday. Many Cuban exiles in Florida say they have been unable to reach relatives on the island.
Before Michelle's arrival, Cuban authorities said the storm could prove to be the worst to strike the island in 50 years.
Speaking with reporters as the storm bore down on the island, Cuban President Fidel Castro compared the hurricane to an assault: specifically, the 1961 U.S./backed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Michelle's winds have eased since Sunday. The storm has been downgraded to a still-dangerous category three hurricane. Michelle is expected to move on a northeasterly path through the Florida Straits, possibly striking the Bahamas by Tuesday.
Florida appears to have been spared the brunt of the storm. Nevertheless, significant rainfall and tropical storm-force winds have been recorded in the Florida Keys, where officials ordered a mandatory evacuation Sunday. Miami-Dade County issued a similar order for exposed regions in the southern part of the county. For those not being evacuated, Mayor Alex Penelas had a simple piece of advice. "Our recommendation, if at all possible, is: stay home tomorrow," he said. "Let us just call it a 'hurricane day.' The best-case scenario is that it turns out to be a beautiful day [Monday]. Then, you know what? Enjoy it with your family. Enjoy it with your kids. We do not want the traffic problems. Driving will be treacherous; we are expecting fallen tree limbs, powerlines. We do not want people out in those conditions."
Michelle is the 13th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which ends later this month.