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Hurricane Dennis slams Cuba

Death toll at 20; half-million told to evacuate in Ala.

HAVANA -- Hurricane Dennis slammed Cuba's southern coast and sliced across the island to the capital yesterday, killing at least 10 people and pushing the Caribbean toll to 20. The powerful storm headed toward a US landfall, prompting hundreds of thousands to flee the Gulf Coast.

Strong winds and surf buffeted the US detention camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, on the island's eastern end, where a guard tower was washed into the sea. There were no reports of casualties.

''It's arrived, with all its diabolical force," President Fidel Castro said on state television. He said 10 people died in southeastern Cuba, including one child who fell into roiling waters as the mother tried to cross an old bridge.

As the storm neared Havana, electricity was shut down across the city of 2 million to prevent injury from downed power lines. ''It is getting dangerously close to the city of Havana," said meteorologist Jose Rubiera.

Castro warned of likely storm surges along Havana's northern coast overnight, and subsequent heavy flooding.

The storm's center made landfall on central Cuba's southern coast in the early afternoon. Civil defense officials said more than 1.5 million people left their homes to take shelter with family or friends or in government refuges.

Cuban television showed images of Defense Minister Raul Castro, the president's brother, touring storm-damaged areas in the southeast, among flattened buildings and collapsed roofs.

The storm had strengthened yesterday morning to a Category 4 with winds reaching 150 miles per hour. It weakened steadily to about 110 miles per hour last night, but was expected to gain strength as it emerged over the Florida Straits and into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico later today.

It was the earliest Category 4 hurricane on record in the Caribbean, according to Colin McAdie, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The storm was on a track to reach the United States over the weekend. About a half-million people in coastal Alabama and tens of thousands more in the Florida Keys and low-lying areas of the Florida Gulf Coast were ordered to evacuate.

At 11 p.m., Dennis was 20 miles east of Havana, or roughly 110 miles south of Key West. Now a Category 2 storm, it was moving northwest at about 14 miles per hour.

Hours before Cuba, Dennis struck Haiti and killed 10 people as it collapsed bridges, triggered landslides, inundated homes, and blocked roads with downed power lines and trees. Young men were charging $2 to carry travelers and their possessions across the Grand Goave River, which overflowed and collapsed a 300-foot bridge, killing four people and cutting off Haiti's southwestern peninsula.

Forecasters predict the storm will hit the United States anywhere from Florida to Louisiana by Monday.

The US detention camp at Guantanamo escaped the brunt of the storm. Heaving surf tore away a lifeguard tower at Windmill Beach and winds destroyed a bus shelter. American troops fixed metal shutters over the steel mesh windows of some prison cells overlooking the sea at Camp Delta, which is just 150 yards from the ocean.

Martin Nelson, lead forecaster at the National Hurricane Center, said it was the first time the Atlantic hurricane season had four named storms this early since record-keeping began in 1851.

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