September 8, 2008

Dozens Die As Hurricane Ike Hits Cuba

HURRICANE Ike roared on to Cuba today 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 tomorrow.

At least 58 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept Haiti yesterday - 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 man was crushed by a falling tree.

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

Ike made landfall in eastern Cuba early today, said meteorologist Todd Kimberlain at the US National Hurricane Centre, and was forecast to hit Havana, the capital of two million people with many vulnerable old buildings, before it moves into the Gulf of Mexico tomorrow.

At 4am BST Ike was a category three hurricane with top sustained winds of 120mph. It was centred near near Cabo Lucretia, about 135 miles east of Camaguey, moving westward at 13mph.

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.

Around 600,000 people had been evacuated by Sunday. Ex-President Fidel Castro released a written statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no-one died.

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.

Strong gusts and steady rains fell at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in south-east Cuba, where all ferries were secured and beaches were off-limits.

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