Sunday, September 07, 2008

Hurricane Ike pounds Cuba on way to Gulf

08 Sep 2008 03:22:56 GMT
Source: Reuters
* Hurricane Ike pounds northeastern Cuba

* Death toll climbs to 61 in flood-prone Haiti

* Ike could threaten U.S. Gulf coast, energy rigs

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Hurricane Ike pounded northeastern Cuba with 120 mile per hour (195 kph) winds, torrential rains and massive waves that rolled through coastal towns on Sunday on a path toward the Gulf of Mexico oil fields and possibly New Orleans.

State-run television showed angry waves slamming into the sea wall and surging as high as nearby five-story apartment buildings before flooding the streets of the city of Baracoa near the eastern tip of the communist-ruled island.

Ike, a dangerous Category 3 storm, had earlier ripped through the southern Bahamas and added to the misery and death toll in storm-battered Haiti. Officials said at least 61 people had died in floods in impoverished Haiti on top of 500 killed last week by Tropical Storm Hanna.

The Cuban Meteorology Institute said the storm crashed into the coast near Punta Lucrecia in the state of Holguin, about 510 miles (823 km) southeast of Havana.

"There is lot of worry, windows are beginning to break," a woman named Carmela said by telephone from the hotel where she works in the city of Holguin, 30 miles (50 km) from Punta Lucrecia. "There's a lot of water, it's raining very heavily."

Officials said at least 1.1 million people were evacuated ahead of a storm expected to slash through the heart of Cuba, which is still reeling from Hurricane Gustav's hard hit on the west side of the long, narrow island last week.

After traversing Cuba, Ike is projected to enter the Gulf of Mexico, where 4,000 platforms produce 25 percent of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas, and point toward Louisiana and Texas.

Ike may threaten New Orleans, the city swamped in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Gustav narrowly missed New Orleans last Monday.


The storm was expected to weaken as it moved across Cuba, but regain strength when it reemerges in the warm Gulf waters. Rainfall up to 20 inches (50.80 cm) was possible in Cuba, forecasters said.

As Ike roared through the Caribbean, residents of the Florida Keys, a 110-mile (177-km) island chain connected by bridges with only one road out, were told to evacuate as a precaution.

Ike ripped off roofs and knocked over trees and power lines as it passed over Great Inagua, the Bahamas' southernmost island and Britain's Turks and Caicos islands. No deaths were reported.

It hit Turks and Caicos as a Category 4 storm with 135 mph (215 kph) winds, damaging 80 percent of the houses on Grand Turk, home to about 2,500 of the islands' 22,000 residents, government spokesman Courtney Robinson said.

Ike dumped more heavy rain on Haiti, where officials said 57 of the 61 victims on Sunday died in Cabaret, a town north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

"The whole village is flooded," civil protection official Moise Jean-Pierre said. "The death toll could go higher."

Flooding from Tropical Storm Hanna last week was believed to have killed at least 500 people around the port city of Gonaives.

On Sunday, rain from Ike was causing the La Quinte river to rise again and floodwaters were seeping back into Gonaives, Mayor Stephen Moise said. All of the bridges linking the city to the rest of the country had collapsed.

"Gonaives is really a devastated and isolated city," he said. "We cannot bear another hurricane."

In the neighboring Dominican Republic, a 60-year-old man was killed by a falling palm tree and some 41,000 people were driven from their homes by rain and gusty winds.

Cuban authorities used buses, trucks and other transportation to move thousands of tourists from prime resorts along the northern coast. Ranchers herded cattle in grazing areas of eastern Las Tunas and Camaguey to higher ground.

In Havana, police with loudspeakers passed through the streets urging people to take steps to protect their property.

Holguin, where Ike came ashore, is home to Cuba's nickel industry, the country's most important export. Holguin's mines and three processing plants in the mountains were shut down.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has taken to writing columns since handing over power to his brother Raul, wrote on Sunday that the flow of international aid to Cuba since Gustav showed that it had many friends who wanted to help.

He said, without giving details, that close ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had taken "measures that make up the most generous gesture of solidarity that our country has known."

Despite the hard blows from hurricanes, Castro said he believed Cubans would receive the aid they needed to recover.

Forecasters expected Ike to weaken to a Category 1 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale over Cuba but to regain Category 3 strength as it nears the U.S. Gulf coast.

Oil companies had begun returning workers to the offshore platforms that were evacuated before Gustav hit but began preparing for the arrival of Ike.