Residents of a low lying area in Port au Prince flee their flooded homes with their possessions August 25, 2012. (Photo : REUTERS/UN/MINUSTAH/Logan Abassi/Handout)
Tropical Storm Isaac dumped torrential rains on Haiti, where thousands of people remain homeless more than two years after a devastating earthquake, and began its assault on eastern Cuba on Saturday.
Heavy rains and high winds lashed Haiti's southern coast, flooding parts of the capital Port-au-Prince and flattening tents in some of the fragile resettlement camps that house more than 350,000 survivors of the 2010 earthquake.
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A 10-year-old girl was killed in Port-au-Prince when a wall fell on her, the Civil Protection authority said. Power outages and minor flooding were reported as Isaac moved across the hilly and severely deforested Caribbean country.
"We haven't had any power since the storm started yesterday. We passed the night with no sleep," said Magdala Jean-Baptiste, who huddled with her frightened children in their home in the southern coastal city of Jacmel.
There were no reports of major damage and winds had died down by midday on Saturday, but forecasters said heavy rains would continue in Haiti.
"Although the center has passed the island, the heaviest rains are on the back end of the storm," said U.S. National Hurricane Center meteorologist David Zelinksy.
After Isaac enters the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters now say it is likely to strengthen into a Category 2 hurricane with 110-mph (160-kph)winds before making landfall anywhere on the U.S. coast from the Florida Panhandle to New Orleans at midweek.
Isaac's march across the Caribbean comes as U.S. Republicans prepare to gather in Tampa, on Florida's central Gulf Coast, for Monday's start of their national convention ahead of the November presidential election. The convention is expected to proceed as planned.
Isaac's center was 40 miles east of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at midday on Saturday, the Hurricane Center said. It was forecast to sweep over eastern Cuba and strengthen into a hurricane before hitting the Florida Keys early on Monday.
Isaac had top winds of 60 mph and would become a hurricane if those swirling winds reach 74 mph. A hurricane warning was in effect for the Florida Keys and the southwest coast of Florida.
From there it was forecast to cross into the Gulf of Mexico, where major energy companies have begun offshore evacuations that could end up shutting nearly half the area's oil output.
In Haiti, the United Nations mission said it was prepared to distribute food and emergency supplies for more than 300,000 people, and 5,700 U.N. troops stood ready to clear roads for emergency response teams.
The government and aid groups tried to evacuate thousands of tent camp dwellers on Friday but many Haitians chose to remain in their flimsy, makeshift homes, apparently fearing they would be robbed, said Bradley Mellicker, head of disaster management for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
REFUGE FROM THE STORM
Volunteers from the government's Civil Protection office were sent across Haiti, warning people about flood and landslide risks. About 1,250 shelters opened in schools, churches and other buildings but Red Cross officials said the number could be grossly inadequate. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe acknowledged Haiti had "limited means" to ensure public safety.
Many Haitians, most of whom scrape by on less than $1 per day, consider disaster an inevitable part of life in the poorest country in the Americas.
"We live under tents. If there's too much rain and wind, water comes in. There's nothing we can do," said Nicholas Absolouis, an unemployed 34-year-old mechanic at one camp for homeless people on the northern edge of the chaotic capital.
Flooding could also help reignite a cholera epidemic, which has killed more than 7,500 people in Haiti since the disease first appeared in October 2010, foreign aid workers said.
In the Dominican Republic, Isaac felled power and phone lines and left at least a dozen towns cut off by flood waters. The most severe damage was reported along the south coast, including the capital Santo Domingo, where more than half the city was without power.
Rising winds and waves began whipping the eastern part of Cuba on Saturday afternoon, prompting government alerts for 11 provinces. In Cuba's easternmost city of Baracoa, water crashed over the seawall and rivulets ran through the nearby streets.
Cuban television reported that more than 1,000 people were evacuated to the homes of friends and family ahead of possible flooding.
"We fear the sea and the flooding a lot more than the rain and wind. It rains frequently here all year long, but when the sea comes in everything floods," said Baracoa house wife Yamila Sanchez.
The storm was expected to pass directly over the town of Moa, the center of the Cuban nickel mining industry, but officials said they expected no major problems and had enough ore on hand to continue processing for up to five days. Cuba is one of the ten largest nickel producers in the world.
In Florida emergency managers urged tourists to leave the Keys if they could do so safely on Saturday. A single road links the chain of low-lying islands to the Florida Peninsula and the Key West airport was expected to halt flights on Saturday evening.
At Cape Canaveral on Florida's east coast, squalls from the storm delayed until next week the launch of a pair of NASA satellites to study Earth's radiation belts. The spacecraft and the Atlas V rocket it sits upon were to be rolled off the launchpad and into a processing building for safety.
Isaac has drawn especially close scrutiny because of the Republican Party's convention, a four-day meeting during which former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will receive the party's presidential nomination.
Party officials insist the convention will go ahead, even if they have to alter the schedule. But Hurricane Center meteorologist Rick Danielson said Tampa could be hit by coastal flooding and driving winds or rain.
"There is still a full range of possible impacts on Tampa at this point," he said.