NASSAU -- Hurricane Lili's torrential rains and winds that gusted to 114 mph drove more than 250,000 people from their homes, flattened buildings and blasted through citrus groves in Cuba Friday before the storm began gathering strength for a bull's ru sh at the Bahamas.
The hurricane's path should spare waterlogged South Florida all but a few scattered showers today. But Lili was expected to become a Category 2 hurricane -- with sustained winds of more than 100 miles an hour -- before starting to whip Nassau on New Pr ovidence Island and other islands in the central Bahamas early this morning.
Crawling across Cuba at nine miles an hour, Lili dumped 6 to 12 inches of rain Friday -- that on top of 17.5 inches dropped on the island throughout the week, the National Hurricane Center in West Dade reported.
Lili knocked down 34 buildings in the Old Havana quarter, crumpled 33 in Santa Clara province, leveled 11 and damaged 875 others on the Isle of Youth, and tore roofs off two sugar mills in the province of Cienfuegos. Power lines were reported down thro ughout the country.
``A terrible wind is blowing, and we're getting a lot of rain. We have no electricity,'' Daniel Perez Sanchez of Santo Domingo in Villaclara province told The Herald early Friday afternoon. The wind brought down several houses, he said, adding: ``A cus tard-apple tree in my back yard is being uprooted at this very moment.''
The storm stripped an estimated 15,000 tons of fruit off citrus trees in the countryside. Damage to the island's important tobacco and sugar crops could not be quantified Friday, but is expected to be serious because of flooding.
Cuban President Fidel Castro toured storm-hit areas Friday and laughed, apparently with relief, at what he described as relatively light damage.
``This battle against nature,'' he said, ``we will also win.''
Yadira Garcia, first secretary of the Communist Party, said damage in his city of Matanzas was difficult to assesss because power lines were down and the roads were impassable.
While property damage reportedly was extensive in Havana, there were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries in Cuba.
Rain from Lili's outer edges was responsible for the death of a Palm Beach County farm laborer sucked into a canal drainage pipe Friday. The storm killed eight people in Central America earlier in the week.
Castro brought 100 of the evacuees into the Palace of the Revolution, which houses his office. ``You have to feel as if at home here,'' he said on Associated Press Television. ``No storm will tear this down.''
About 60 refugees sought shelter Friday at an elementary school in Havana's Cayo Hueso neighborhood. Santa Lovet, 60, arrived with her five nephews and four sons.
``We came away with nothing but bedding and a bottle of milk for the youngsters,'' she said.
More than two dozen amateur radio operators in South Florida monitored reports of storm damage and provided information from forecasters to a dozen radio operators throughout Cuba.
``The last guy I talked to was kind of panicked,'' said Paul Hunt, a Coral Gables city official who manned the radio at the hurricane center. ``He told me that nobody was hurt, but that he needed to get off the air and care for his family.''
The radio operators in South Florida kept a log of reported wind speeds, rain, power outages reported from across the Florida Straits -- information critical to forecasters trying to predict the path of the hurricane from afar.
Many parts of Havana were nearly deserted Friday, with only a few cars on the streets. Churning waves crashed over the seawall, drenching the Malecon boulevard. Strong winds snapped palm fronds and almond tree branches, scattering them along Havana's streets. Sheets of rain flooded some roads leading east from the capital.
Lili appeared to be gaining power as it left Cuba's north coast near Caibarien late Friday afternoon. Hurricane warnings were in effect late Friday afternoon for mainland Cuba between Matanzas and Camaguey provinces, and for the central and northwest B ahamas. The storm was advancing about 15 miles an hour.
``We're very happy,'' Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow said. ``We dodged another one.''
Wardlow credited the island's good fortune to the shrine built at St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in 1919, which many locals believe protects Key West from the wrath of hurricanes.
``The grotto always works,'' Wardlow said. ``People just have to believe, that's all. When it started coming, we just said, `Think about the grotto.' And it didn't come.''
The threat of a hurricane apparently didn't scare many visitors from heading south, tourism officials said Friday. Despite the rescheduling of some of Key West's annual Fantasy Fest events, the celebration, which starts tonight with a masked ball, will go on.
``We're professional partyers here in Key West,'' said Ann Dickinson, the festival director. ``We can't let a little wind and rain bother our plans.''
Frederick Cooper, 38, a taxi driver, claims there's a scientific basis for complacency.
``If it comes this way, it won't hurt us,'' he said. ``The Gulf Stream breaks it up, man, and so does the coral reef.''
Perhaps the most worried person in Nassau was Jennifer Jones, a 33-year-old office manager from Atlanta. She is supposed to be married today -- on the beach where hurricane forecasters expect a 4- to 8-foot storm surge.
``For some people, it rains on their wedding day,'' she said. ``I might get a hurricane.''
Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald
Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald