Tropical depression in Caribbean heads for Cuba

HAVANA — Cuba geared up for heavy rains and high winds from a tropical depression that formed in the northern Caribbean on Tuesday and was forecast to strengthen before plowing across the island and racing northward toward Florida.

The storm was centered about 115 miles (190 kilometers) south of Havana in the afternoon and was moving north-northeast at 10 mph (17 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Its projected path would take it directly over the Cuban capital and surrounding provinces.

Maximum sustained winds were 35 mph (55 kph), but the depression was forecast to pick up steam and become a tropical storm later Tuesday or early Wednesday.

Cuba’s chief meteorologist said the weather system was large but disorganized and the heaviest rains were expected to hit east of the storm’s center in an area from Matanzas to Las Tunas in eastern Cuba.

“This is a very weak system,” Jose Rubiera said. He forecast that top wind speeds would rise to no more than 50 mph (80 kph). “Those winds will not cause any damage, except possibly to sensitive crops or weak structures.”

He said he was more concerned about the rains, which could be intense in some areas.

Cuba has a well-trained civil defense force noted for its fast response to natural disasters. The country often orders large-scale evacuations ahead of even moderate storms. But no such evacuations were immediately announced, and state media had no word on the activation of emergency plans.

While the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season has been unusually active, Tuesday’s storm is the first to directly threaten Cuba. The island was devastated by three hurricanes in 2008, but was entirely spared last year.

Serious damage from a hurricane this year could be a major blow to the cash-strapped government as it attempts to right its weak economy. This month, Cuba’s communist leaders announced that a half-million state employees would be laid off and reforms implemented to allow more private enterprise.

A tropical storm warning was in effect from Matanzas eastward to Ciego de Avila in Cuba, as well as the northwestern and central Bahamas and in Florida from Jupiter Inlet to the Florida Keys.

PAUL HAVEN / The Associated Press