Hurricane Hits Cuba Hard, Misses Florida

South Florida breathed a sigh of relief this morning after dodging Hurricane Michelle, the strongest storm to hit Cuba in a half-century.

Michelle's eye passed well east of Florida before moving on to batter the Bahamas — hitting the island of Abaco there today and heading for Nassau. It is expected to head out to sea later today.

"Gradual weakening is forecast for the next 24 hours," said Tricia Wallace, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Michelle's maximum sustained winds dropped to 80 mph this morning.

The storm gradually lost power after tearing through Cuba and pounding Havana's sea wall with 140-mph gusts, making it a Category 4 hurricane. The Cuban government had ordered the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people before the storm hit.

Cuba Hit Hard, But Damage Is Unknown

The extent of the damage in Cuba was not immediately clear, because power and phone service were knocked out. The heaviest damage was expected to be east of Havana, in one of Cuba's popular tourist areas.

Cuban officials told The Associated Press that at least five people were killed by the storm.

After the hurricane passed, Cuban leader Fidel Castro visited a hotel near the Bay of Pigs area, where tourists had taken shelter.

Earlier in the week, the hurricane killed 12 people in Central America and Jamaica, before heading to Cuba.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had declared a state of emergency in the Keys over the weekend, and officials imposed a mandatory evacuation for all 80,000 residents and tourists.

Warnings Dropped After a Weekend of Worry

Early this morning, the National Hurricane Center dropped its tropical storm warning for the middle and lower Florida Keys, but warnings for the upper Keys remained in effect. Some flooding in the area was reported, but less than experts had feared, and power and phone lines were apparently unaffected.

Keys residents spent the weekend preparing in case the late-season hurricane headed their way.

"We closed up our houses, we closed the beginning of the store up and we're ready," said store owner Tom Busbin over the weekend.

Residents of the Keys community of Marathon virtually abandoned their town after the evacuation order came over the weekend.

"We're taking it all up north and we're going to have our own little version of a hurricane party," said Angela Smith, who runs a retirement center:

Some critical-care patients from a nearby hospital were evacuated in a C-130 cargo plane.

Winds up to 45 mph were reported along Miami beach today, and the Miami/Dade School District gave students today off, as residents waited to see where the storm would head.

Even though Michelle dealt Florida only a glancing blow, the storm surge was enough to impress local residents.

"I've never really seen it come over the sea wall like that," said Keys resident Michelle Cranford.