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|Subject: Hurricane Ike heads for Cuba Sun Sep 07, 2008 8:11 pm|| |
HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Ike killed at least 37 people in Haiti and ripped off rooftops in the southern Bahamas on Sunday as Cuba scrambled to get hundreds of thousands out of the path of a storm headed toward the U.S. Gulf oil patch and possibly New Orleans.
Despite weakening slightly, Ike was still a dangerous Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph (195 kph) winds and a possible 12-foot (3.6-metre) storm surge.
It bore down on Cuba's coast after dumping more heavy rain on Haiti and raging through Britain's Turks and Caicos, and Great Inagua, the Bahamas' southernmost island.
"This one is quite severe," said Inagua resident Shanie Roker. "There is a lot of wind and rain. Roofs in Matthew Town are being damaged and trees are coming down."
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 could follow a path similar to Hurricane Gustav through the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana and Texas. It may threaten New Orleans, the city swamped by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, and the Gulf energy rigs that account for a quarter of U.S. oil output and 15 percent of natural gas output.
The hurricane rained new misery on Haiti. Authorities said at least 37 people, including 13 children, were killed by floods triggered by Ike 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."
PATH ACROSS CUBA
In the neighbouring 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.
Many of Cuba's 11 million people could be affected by Ike, which was expected to hit land north of Guantanamo Bay -- home to the controversial U.S. prison camp for terrorism suspects -- and spend nearly two days over the long, narrow island.
By 5 p.m. EDT (10:00 p.m. British time), the centre of Ike was 75 miles (120 km) north-northeast of Guantanamo.
Authorities used buses, trucks and other transportation to move thousands of tourists inland from Cuba's prime resorts along the northern coast. Ranchers herded cattle in grazing areas of eastern Las Tunas and Camaguey to higher ground.
Ike was set to come ashore in Holguin, home of the nickel industry, Cuba's most important export, then move westward over the heart of the sugar industry. Holguin's mines and three processing plants in the mountains were shut down.
Holguin and neighbouring provinces have not been hit by a storm of Ike's power in more than 50 years.
"I've never seen a hurricane pass over this city and I'm terribly frightened," university student Yaneisy Betancourt said by telephone from the port city of Nuevitas.
The storm hit the eastern islands of the 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.
"There's a lot of flooding. Power lines are down. Communications lines are out," he said.
In the Florida Keys, a steady stream of traffic moved along the Overseas Highway as some people evacuated even though Ike was expected to pass at least 100 miles (160 km) to the south.
Ike was forecast to curve into the Gulf in the wake of Gustav, which went ashore just west of New Orleans last week, sparing the city traumatized by Katrina in 2005.
Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused about $80 billion damage on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Ike's most likely track had it aimed at the Texas-Louisiana border. But long-range forecasts have a large margin of error and any deviation could take it toward New Orleans.
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.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Michael Haskins in Key West, John Marquis in Nassau and Manuel Jimenez in the Dominican Republic; Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Tom Brown and John O'Callaghan)