Ernesto Drops to Tropical Storm Status

Times Staff Writer

Hurricane Ernesto lashed southern Haiti with 75-mph winds Sunday, and despite slowing to tropical-storm speeds as it bore down on Cuba, the erratic tempest prompted Gulf Coast officials from Florida to Louisiana to scramble emergency response teams.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency and visitors to the Keys were ordered out, as well as all trailers, after the National Hurricane Center confirmed Ernesto had become the season’s first hurricane.

Though the storm lost force by afternoon, with winds easing to 50 mph, center Director Max Mayfield warned that Ernesto could quickly pick up intensity again as it crossed the warm Caribbean waters overnight and that even as a tropical storm it could inflict serious damage.

“We think it has a good chance to regain hurricane status,” Mayfield told reporters at the hurricane center west of Miami. Even if Ernesto remains a tropical storm, Mayfield warned that it appeared likely to drive through a broad swath of Florida and that “the entire state needs to pay close attention.”


The governor’s order and the hurricane center’s forecast of possible Florida landfall as soon as Tuesday prompted officials in Tallahassee to “partially activate” their emergency management plans, a move allowing county officials to mobilize first responders and prepare transportation, shelter and other supplies for potential evacuations, said Mike Stone, a state emergency management spokesman.

Monroe County authorities reported an orderly evacuation and steady traffic out of the Keys on the single road linking the island chain, U.S. Route 1. But overnight maintenance work closing one of the two causeways to the Florida mainland was expected to slow the exodus.

The evacuation order for the Keys warned those with travel plans this week not to come. Just days before the busy Labor Day weekend, hotel and restaurant owners still reeling from losses inflicted during the last two hurricane seasons looked with dread on the prospect of a holiday without tourists.

“We had four storms last year, and that already made people double-guess their decisions to come down here this time of year,” said Gregg McGrady, executive director of the Key West Business Guild.


Cuba’s civil defense agency moved more than 70,000 people from vulnerable settlements along the southern coast after Ernesto reached hurricane strength in the morning and remained on track to inundate much of Cuba over the next few days, media there reported.

The storm, expected to make landfall in southern Cuba early today and travel as far as Havana, would be the first test of the country’s emergency response capabilities since President Fidel Castro fell ill in late July and handed power to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro. The ailing Cuban leader traditionally played a prominent role in marshaling orderly mandatory evacuations and visiting shelters to show solidarity with the displaced.

Concerns about Ernesto were high all along the Gulf Coast ravaged by Hurricane Katrina a year ago, despite a change in Ernesto’s course late Saturday that caused forecasters to project that the storm probably would hit Florida harder than Mississippi or Louisiana.

With 100,000 Mississippians living in trailers vulnerable to hurricane-force winds, those vehicles will have to be evacuated at least two days ahead of any storm landfall, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”


“We cannot wait as late as we would have waited a year or two ago because we’ve got all these people under these special circumstances,” Barbour said, adding that the evacuation order could go out as early as Tuesday if Ernesto was then on a path imperiling his state.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency -- which received scathing criticism for its Katrina response -- has thoroughly evaluated that disaster’s lessons and has corrected policies and planning, said agency Director R. David Paulison.

“After every major event, you always go back and do after-action reports and look carefully at what worked and what did not work, and then very quickly get on top of those things to fix them for the next time,” Paulison told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Paulison, a veteran of Florida emergency response missions including Hurricane Andrew in 1992, said major improvements had been made to communications, logistics, victim registration and relief operations since the Gulf Coast devastation last year.


But according to a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll, most Americans don’t believe the nation is prepared for another major disaster, despite official assurances to the contrary. One in three says the Bush administration handled the Katrina response well.