Mon Aug 28, 2006 5:35am ET147
By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto bore down on southeastern Cuba on Monday after drenching Haiti with punishing rains, while forecasters issued a hurricane watch for the southern peninsula of Florida.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center issued the watch from Deerfield Beach southward on Florida's east coast and from south of Chokoloskee southward along the west coast. The watch, which means hurricane conditions could develop within 36 hours, remained in effect for all the Florida Keys.
Florida, storm-weary after eight hurricanes in the past two years, declared a state of emergency on Sunday and ordered tourists out of the vulnerable Keys almost a year to the day since Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans.
Ernesto, which was downgraded to a tropical storm on Sunday after skirting southern Haiti, was pounding Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, with flooding rainfall and killed at least one person there.
Cuba, facing its first big storm in decades without its ailing leader, Fidel Castro, at the helm, evacuated 300,000 people from eastern provinces where the storm was expected to hit the Sierra Maestra mountains later Monday.
The Miami-based hurricane center said in its 5 a.m. (0900 GMT) advisory that Ernesto was getting better organized as it approached southeastern Cuba and that heavy rains, floods and mudslides were a significant threat for eastern Cuba and much of the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Forecasters said Ernesto, which had become the year's first hurricane early on Sunday when its top winds reached 75 mph (119 kph), would likely make landfall along the southeastern Cuban coast later on Monday morning and possibly emerge off Cuba's north coast later on Monday night or Tuesday morning. Continued...