September 8, 2008

Cuba Braced As Hurricane Ike Nears at Over 135mph


HURRICANE Ike roared toward Cuba with 135mph-plus winds yesterday and was expected to sweep into the Gulf of Mexico where it could threaten the US oilpatch and possibly New Orleans.

Cuban authorities scrambled to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people in the eastern and central coastal areas using buses, trucks and whatever other transportation was available as Ike bore down as a fierce Category 4 hurricane that could flood the shore with 18ft of water.

As Ike battered the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southern Bahamas, residents of the Florida Keys were told to evacuate as a precaution.

When it emerges from Cuba, Ike could follow a path similar to that of last week's Hurricane Gustav toward Louisiana and Texas. That would be a threat to New Orleans and the Gulf energy rigs which account for a quarter of US oil and 15% of natural gas output.

Thousands of tourists staying at Cuba's prime resorts along the northern coast were being taken inland or to safe locations at resorts as hotels were boarded up.

Ranchers herded cattle in the prime grazing areas of eastern Las Tunas and Camaguey to higher ground, while port workers struggled to move cargo inland.

"We are at a disadvantage because there are no hills and mountains to break the wind," farm worker Artemio Madonadoemos said from the Las Tunas flatlands.

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.

Ike was forecast to batter the islands in its path with flooding up to 18 feet above normal tides and to rain new misery on Haiti, where hundreds of people died in floods and mudslides caused by three storms in the past month.

By 11am yesterday Ike was sweeping through the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British territory of about 22,000 people, and the southern Bahamas.

A steady stream of traffic moved along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys as an evacuation of residents began, even though Ike was expected to pass at least 100 miles to the south.

"It's just too close to not react to it," Monroe County administrator Roman Gastesi said.

But many residents looked at the storm with typical nonchalance in laidback Key West.

The densely populated Florida southeast coast from Miami to West Palm Beach, home to some 5 million people and billions of dollars of pricey real estate, appeared less likely to be hit.

Ike was forecast to curve into the Gulf in the wake of Gustav, which slammed ashore west of New Orleans, sparing the city traumatised by Katrina in 2005.

Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused about $80 billion damage on the US Gulf Coast.

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 US Gulf coast.

(c) 2008 Belfast Telegraph. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.