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Debby barrels past Caribbean

Weakened storm may not pound Florida as feared

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HAVANA — A weakening Tropical Storm Debby soaked northern Haiti and forced thousands of people in Cuba to abandon homes as it plodded through the western Caribbean toward the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday.

Debby's maximum sustained winds dwindled to about 40 mph as it traveled westward off southern Cuba. Forecasters said it posed less of a threat to the Florida Keys than was feared Wednesday and could be downgraded to a tropical depression.

They warned, however, that it can still produce flash floods, mudslides and up to 15 inches of rain over mountains.

"It's weakened considerably, and it looks like it will take a more westward course than we first anticipated," said Eric Blake, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. "We think it'll probably cross the western part of Cuba. That's our best guess."

A tropical depression has winds of 38 mph or less. "The rain continues to be the most significant factor in this storm," Cuban government radio station Radio Reloj reported.

Roger Batista, civil defense director in the eastern province of Las Tunas in Cuba, said Debby "no longer constitutes a danger for us because of it location and movement."

Taking no chances, many residents in south Florida stocked up on bottled water, canned food, portable generators and batteries. In Monroe County, officials issued an evacuation order for an estimated 15,000 people in the Florida Keys. Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park closed Wednesday.

As Debby's center brushed past eastern Cuba earlier, authorities evacuated at least 7,000 people, including Haitians at a refugee camp. Heavy rains and winds lashed the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in southeastern Cuba.

"They're doing fine. They prepared for the heavy weather and lashed down anything that could become a flying object," said Pat Dooling, spokesman for U.S. Navy Region Southeast in Jacksonville, Fla., which oversees the Guantanamo Bay base.

In northern Haiti, shantytown dwellers fled their homes on Turtle Island, homes were flooded in Port-de-Paix and winds ripped tin roofs off shacks. Winds sank five boats and a storm surge swept a house out to sea in the coastal village of Carenage, but there were no reports of injuries

The Dominican Republic's emergency Civil Defense force said more than 700 people in towns and cities on the north coast were forced out of their homes by flooding Wednesday.

At 8 a.m. EDT Thursday, Debby was centered about 135 miles west-southwest of Santiago de Cuba, moving westward at about 20 mph. Tropical storm-force winds extended up to 115 miles to the north of the storm's center.

On Tuesday, Debby was a hurricane with winds of 75 mph, but it was downgraded to a tropical storm Wednesday when it lost force in the mountains of Hispaniola.

Debby caused little damage to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and small northeast Caribbean islands. A 78-year-old man died Tuesday in a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, when he slipped from his roof while trying to dismantle an antenna.

On the Net: National Hurricane Center: www.nhc.noaa.gov

University of Puerto Rico's page: www.upr.clu.edu/nws