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Archive for Monday, September 8, 2008

Killer Ike hits Cuba after lashing Bahamas and Haiti

Rain clouds begin to form Sunday over the upper Florida Keys. Officials in the Keys started a phased evacuation for residents Sunday morning after telling visitors a day earlier to get out. Ike, which was a dangerous Category 4 storm early Sunday before weakening to a Category 3 when it hit Cuba, was forecast to affect the Keys starting tonight, on a potential track for the central Gulf.

Rain clouds begin to form Sunday over the upper Florida Keys. Officials in the Keys started a phased evacuation for residents Sunday morning after telling visitors a day earlier to get out. Ike, which was a dangerous Category 4 storm early Sunday before weakening to a Category 3 when it hit Cuba, was forecast to affect the Keys starting tonight, on a potential track for the central Gulf.

September 8, 2008

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— Hurricane Ike roared onto Cuba Sunday after destroying houses and crops on low-lying islands and worsening floods in Haiti that have already killed more than 300 people.

With Ike forecast to sweep the length of Cuba and possibly hit Havana head-on, hundreds of thousands evacuated to shelters or higher ground. To the north, residents of the Florida Keys fled up a narrow highway, fearful that the "extremely dangerous" hurricane could hit them Tuesday.

At least 58 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept Haiti Sunday - and officials found three more bodies from a previous storm - raising the nation's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 319. A Dominican Republic man was crushed by a falling tree.

Ike first slammed into the Turks and Caicos and the southernmost Bahamas islands as a Category 4 hurricane, but thousands rode out the storm in shelters and there was no immediate word of deaths on the low-lying islands.

Landfall in Cuba

Ike made landfall in eastern Cuba late Sunday night, said meteorologist Todd Kimberlain at the U.S. National Hurricane Center, and was forecast to hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people with many vulnerable old buildings, before it moves into the Gulf of Mexico early Tuesday morning.

At 10 p.m. CDT, Ike was a Category 3 hurricane with top sustained winds of 120 mph. It was centered near Cabo Lucretia, about 135 miles east of Camaguey, moving westward at 13 mph.

State television broadcast images of the storm surge washing over coastal homes in the easternmost city of Baracoa, and reported that dozens of dwellings were damaged beyond repair.

An informal AP tally of figures being released sporadically by eastern Cuban provinces indicated that more than 770,000 people had been evacuated by Sunday evening. Former President Fidel Castro released a written statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies.

Foreign tourists were pulled out from vulnerable beach resorts, workers rushed to protect coffee plants and other crops, and plans were under way to distribute food and cooking oil to disaster areas.

More than 100 people waited in chaotic bread lines at each of the numerous government bakeries around town as families hoarded supplies before the storm. And on the provincial capital's outskirts, trucks and dented school buses brought about 1,000 evacuees to the sprawling campus of an art school.

Classrooms at the three-story school built on stilts were filled with metal bunk beds. The approaching hurricane brought a stiff breeze through the open windows.

Mirtha Perez, a 65-year-old retiree, said hardly anyone was left in her nearby town of Salome.

"It's a huge evacuation," she said. "We are waiting and asking God to protect us and that nothing happens to us."

Strong gusts and steady rains fell at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba, where all ferries were secured and beaches were off limits. The military said cells containing the detainees - about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida - are hurricane-proof. But the base was spared the strongest winds.

Turks and Caicos

The Turks and Caicos had little natural protection from storm surges of up to 18 feet. Premier Michael Misick said more than 80 percent of the homes were damaged on two of the British territory's islands and people who didn't take refuge in shelters were cowering in closets and under stairwells, "just holding on for life."

In South Caicos, a fishing-dependent island of 1,500 people, the airport was under water, power will be out for weeks and at least 20 boats were swept away despite being towed ashore for safety, Minister of Natural Resources Piper Hanchell said.

Tourism chairman Wayne Garland was text-messaging with two people in Grand Turk during the height of the storm. "They were literally in their bathroom because their roofs were gone," he said. "Eventually they were rescued."

The Bahamas' Great Inagua island was hit soon thereafter, and both of its shelters sprung leaks in the 135 mph winds.

Great Inagua has about 1,000 people and about 50,000 West Indian flamingos - the world's largest breeding colony. Both populations sought safety from the winds and driving rain, with the pink flamingos gathering in mangrove thickets. Biologists worried that their unique habitat could be destroyed.

"There's a possibility that the habitat can't really be replaced, and that they can't find an equivalent spot," said Greg Butcher, bird conservation director for the National Audubon Society. "You might have a significant drop in the number of flamingos."

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