By Will Weissert
Monday, September 8, 2008
CAMAGUEY, Cuba, Sept. 7 -- Hurricane Ike struck eastern Cuba after roaring across low-lying islands Sunday, tearing apart houses, wiping out crops and worsening floods in Haiti that have already killed more than 300 people.
With Ike forecast to sweep across Cuba and possibly hit Havana head-on, hundreds of thousands of Cubans evacuated to shelters or higher ground. Farther north, residents of the Florida Keys fled up a narrow highway, fearful that the hurricane that U.S. officials have described as "extremely dangerous" could hit them Tuesday.
At least 58 people died in Haiti as Ike's winds and rain swept the island nation Sunday, and officials found three more bodies from a previous storm. That raised Haiti's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 319.
By the time Ike hit Cuba late Sunday, it was a slightly weakened Category 3 hurricane with top winds of 120 mph. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted Ike's eye could hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people with many vulnerable old buildings, by Monday night.
An informal tally of figures being released sporadically by individual provinces indicated that more than 770,000 people had been evacuated in eastern Cuba. Former president Fidel Castro released a written statement that called on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies when Ike hits.
The first islands to bear Ike's fury Sunday were the Turks and Caicos, which have little natural protection from storm surges of up to 18 feet.
The British territory's premier, Michael Misick, said more than 80 percent of the homes were damaged on two 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, most homes were damaged, the airport was underwater and power will be out for weeks, Natural Resources Minister Piper Hanchell said.
Ike also devastated the Bahamas' Great Inagua island, home to about 1,000 people and about 50,000 West Indian flamingos -- the world's largest breeding colony.
Both populations sought safety from the 135 mph winds and driving rain, with the people crowding into two shelters and the pink birds gathering in mangrove thickets.
Ike's rains could not have come at a worse time for Haiti, still struggling with the destruction brought on by Hanna, Gustav and Fay. Haitian officials said they had no choice but to open an overflowing dam, inundating more homes and possibly causing lasting damage to key farming areas.
Agriculture Minister Joanas Gay told state-run Radio Nationale that half the homes in Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest city, were already underwater.
Where Ike would go after Cuba was hard to predict, leaving millions from Florida to Mexico worrying where it will strike.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) prepared for the possibility of more havoc only days after more than 2 million people evacuated away from Hurricane Gustav.