RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Tens of thousands of coastal residents from Honduras to the Florida Keys are evacuating their homes ahead of Hurricane Wilma. By one measure yesterday, the storm was the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever observed. Early this morning, forecasters said Hurricane Wilma had weakened to a Category 4 storm, still dangerous with 150-mile-per-hour winds. The path of the storm is still uncertain. Forecasters say it could strike Cuba before crossing to Florida this weekend. Joining me on the line from Havana is reporter Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune.
Mr. GARY MARX (Chicago Tribune): Hi, Renee. How are you?
MONTAGNE: Fine. Are you starting to feel the effects of this storm?
Mr. MARX: Well, I was actually out in the western part of the island yesterday where the storm is expected to do the most damage, and there was already some rain and some wind, so, yeah, the island is beginning to mobilize for the storm.
MONTAGNE: And what exactly are people doing ahead of this hurricane?
Mr. MARX: You know, I don't think they're handling Wilma any different than they've handled other hurricanes. They have a massive mobilization effort. I mean, it's one thing the Cubans are incredibly good at, and it begins from the block committees, these local organizations in local neighborhoods, all the way up to top of the political leadership, and they essentially go house to house, taking a census of individuals, looking at their houses, seeing whether or not they can withstand a storm. If not, they move people into schools and other shelters. They also, you know, remove animals from low-lying areas. They cut down trees they think are going to fall down. So it's actually quite an impressive operation.
MONTAGNE: Now if and when it does hit Cuba, it's supposed to skirt the western part of Cuba, and that includes a province where much of the tobacco for Cuba's famous cigars is grown. So what could happen there?
Mr. MARX: Well, you know, this is--it looks like the storm is taking more or less the same path as Ivan last year, which headed, you know, through the straits between the Yucatan and western Cuba. Yeah. I mean, there was a lot of damage to the tobacco industry, I believe, last year. A lot of these drying sheds, which you see out in the beautiful countryside in western Cuba, were damaged last year. So I think they're going to probably take a hit here. I mean, the hope is obviously that the hurricane will weaken and that it will move away from the island.
MONTAGNE: If it does hit, what kind of economic impact might that have?
Mr. MARX: Well, the economic impact can be significant. I mean, they've had hurricanes that have caused more than a billion dollars in damages, so, I mean, it can wipe out entire crops, which is serious stuff here in Cuba.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us. Hopefully, you will not be hit by this hurricane.
Mr. MARX: Thanks, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Gary Marx is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, joining us on the line from Havana, Cuba.
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