Havana (AFP) Sept 8, 2008
Hurricane Ike assaulted Cuba on Monday with torrential rain and gale-force winds, demolishing houses, crushing crops and threatening Havana after killing 61 people in Haiti, where a series of vicious storms has triggered a humanitarian crisis.
After rampaging through the Atlantic and Caribbean, a weakened Ike was forecast to move away from Cuba Tuesday into the Gulf of Mexico, where it was expected to gain strength in warm waters and surge towards a US Gulf Coast still reeling from a hurricane that blasted the region barely a week ago.
Cuba carried out mass evacuations of residents and tourists as Ike made landfall Sunday night at Cabo Lucrecia in the east, pounding buildings along the coast with seven-meter (23-foot) waves and flooding coastal villages.
More than 1.8 million people were moved away from coastal areas in eastern and central Cuba and more than 9,000 foreign tourists were evacuated from the resort of Varadero east of Havana, officials said.
The storm tore a path to the southern coast with the eye heading out over open water, where forecasters feared Ike could strengthen even as the hurricane's brutal winds and rain battered the island.
Civil defense forces slapped a hurricane warning on the entire country, including Havana, a city of 2.2 million people where hundreds of centuries-old buildings pose a hazard of collapse, as they anticipated a major hit on the city Tuesday.
Ike's devastation followed widespread destruction wrought by Hurricane Gustav which charged into western Cuba August 30 and destroyed or severely damaged 140,000 homes and buildings.
"In all of Cuba's history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together," said the head of Cuba's meteorological service, Jose Rubiera, on state television.
But a ray of hope emerged for Havana at 1800 GMT, when the US National Hurricane Center shifted the track of the storm further south of the city than earlier forecast.
At 1800 GMT, the center of the storm was in the Caribbean Sea about 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of Camaguey and 405 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of Havana, according to the NHC.
With sustained winds near 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour, it could regain force over water before making landfall again.
Hours earlier Ike sent monster waves spraying the tops of five-storey buildings in eastern Baracoa, where hundreds of homes were destroyed, many of them swept away by raging currents.
"I have never seen anything like this," said one Baracoa resident of 57 years.
"There is widespread damage" of homes, businesses, and the agriculture sector, civil defense department chief Colonel Jose Betancourt said.
Ike is forecast to track into the Gulf of Mexico sometime Tuesday and train its sights on the US Gulf Coast, where the bulk of US oil refineries is located.
Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell said Monday it had already evacuated 150 workers and would move its remaining 500 employees in the Gulf between by Wednesday.
The New York oil futures contract edged up 11 cents to 106.34 by the closing bell Monday.
Ike plowed across the Turks and Caicos and southern Bahamas Saturday and Sunday as a category four storm, causing extensive damage but no reported deaths.
Worst-affected is Haiti, where four storms in three weeks have killed more than 600 people and left hundreds of thousands desperate for food, clean water and shelter.
Officials continued aid operations in the stricken town of Gonaives, where hundreds died in devastating floods from Tropical Storm Hanna, but stormy weather and bridge collapses hampered relief efforts.
Another 61 people perished in Haiti, including 57 in the village of Cabaret near Port-au-Prince, in flooding caused by Ike, officials said. Many of the victims were children.
"What has happened here is unimaginable," member of parliament Pierre-Gerome Valcine told AFP from Cabaret, 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of the capital.
Hundreds of bodies were found in Gonaives, a town of 350,000 in northwestern Haiti, after a five-meter (16-foot) wall of water and mud engulfed much of the town.
As thousands awaited relief, the US Navy deployed a helicopter carrier off Haiti's coast to help with relief efforts.
The USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship loaded with relief supplies, will help move cargo and equipment between Port-au-Prince and Gonaives, Saint-Marc and other stricken areas, the military said.
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Ike death toll in Haiti climbs to 61, including many children
Port-Au-Prince (AFP) Sept 8, 2008
Hurricane Ike has killed 61 people in Haiti, including 57 in a single village, civil protection officials said in an updated toll given Monday.
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