Haiti Gets First Impact of Hurricane Ernesto

This season's first hurricane, Ernesto, hit Haiti on Sunday as it headed for Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico. Mike Brennan, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center, explains Ernesto's likely trajectory over the next few days.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Ernesto, the first hurricane of the season, is now a tropical storm. The hurricane lost strength as it lashed Haiti today. Its winds are now reported to be about 60 miles an hour. The storm's heavy rains have triggered some coastal flooding in Haiti and dangerous mudslides are possible on the Caribbean island.

Forecasters predict tropical storm Ernesto will regain its strength as it moves toward the Florida Gulf Coast later this week.

In the meantime, Ernesto is expected to cross over Cuba. Evacuations are under way in eastern Cuba and the Florida Keys, where officials today asked tourists to leave. Governor Jeb Bush has declared a state of emergency.

Mike Brennan is a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. He's been tracking Ernesto's path.

Mr. Brennan, what's the likely threat from Ernesto?

Mr. MIKE BRENNAN (Meteorologist, National Hurricane Center): Well, the threat in the short-term is going to be from very heavy rains, especially over the mountainous terrain of Haiti and Jamaica and eastern Cuba, where some areas could get six to 12 inches, as much as 20 inches of rain.

Later in the week, as Ernesto's going to move to the northwest across Cuba, where there's a hurricane warning in effect, and eventually Ernesto will turn to the north and threaten most likely the state of Florida, but where that threat occurs is going to be determined by exactly when and where Ernesto makes that turn. So anywhere from the Florida Panhandle all the way down to the Keys and anywhere in the peninsula could be threatened by Ernesto by the middle or late portions of the week.

ELLIOTT: Now, what's likely to happen as this hurricane moves over Cuba? Will the land slow it down a little bit?

Mr. BRENNAN: It could. We've seen signs today that Ernesto's actually been weakening a little bit due to interaction with the mountainous terrain of Haiti. But as it moves across Cuba, that makes the intensity forecast very tricky. It could weaken, depending on exactly how long it spends over Cuba and what part of the country it goes over. There are parts of it that are very mountainous and that would be worse for the storm's intensity, in terms of weakening it. But it is possible that Ernesto would re-strengthen once it entered the water on the other side of Cuba and moved into the Gulf of Mexico.

ELLIOTT: So who should be preparing right now?

Mr. BRENNAN: Anyone in Florida, especially in the U.S. at least. I mean, everybody in the central and eastern Gulf Coast should be paying attention to Ernesto because there can be large changes in the forecast track, especially out in the four to five day time period.

ELLIOTT: You know, Ernesto is heading for the Gulf Coast here at the one year anniversary of Katrina. Do you think the coast is ready for another hit?

Mr. BRENNAN: I don't think anyone is looking forward to experiencing another hurricane. You know, you remember that a lot of Florida was affected by Wilma last year, which was a major hurricane. You know, nobody really wants to have to deal with any of these storms, so hopefully it will continue to weaken and then it won't be as - a major threat to anyone.

But we have to prepare for what we're forecasting, which is a potential for a Category 1, 2, or even possibly a Category 3 hurricane to threaten Florida later this week.

ELLIOTT: Can the people over in Louisiana breathe a sigh of relief at this point?

Mr. BRENNAN: Somewhat, yes. I think the greatest risk for dealing with Ernesto has definitely shifted to the east, mainly to Florida. But there's always the possibility that there could be changes in the track, so everybody should just pay attention to the track and the forecast over the next couple of days.

ELLIOTT: And one final question. You know, there were more named storms during last year's hurricane season than ever before. You even ran out of names. And Florida alone has been hit by eight hurricanes over the past two years. Are we in some sort of cycle here with more and stronger storms threatening the U.S.?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, we're in a cycle of increased activity in the Atlantic. There are these cycles that last 20 to 30 years, and we're in the middle of a cycle that features more tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin.

And usually when you have more storms out there, there's a larger chance that they'll actually impact land. So we're dealing with the effects of that.

ELLIOTT: Mike Brennan is a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center. Thank you.

Mr. BRENNAN: Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Later in the program, the painful recovery from Katrina across the Gulf Coast.

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