September 2, 2008

Gustav Pounds Caribbean, Kills 81

By Will Weissert

HAVANA - Gustav swelled into a fearsome Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 mph on Saturday as Cuba raced to evacuate more than 240,000 people and Americans to the north clogged highways fleeing New Orleans.

It could become a Category 5 storm over the Gulf of Mexico by today, with winds of 160 mph according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Gustav already has killed 81 people in the Caribbean and it was on a course for the Katrina-battered U.S. coast.

Cuba grounded all national airline fights, though planes bound for international destinations were still taking off at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. Authorities also canceled all buses and trains to and from the capital, as well as ferry and air service to the Isla de Juventud, the outlying Cuban island-province next in Gustav's path.

Heavy winds had already felled mango and almond trees and were shaking the roofs of buildings in the province, said Ofilia Hernandez, who answered a community telephone near downtown Nueva Gerona, Isla de la Juventud's largest city.

"Everyone's at home. It's getting very ugly," she said. "All night last night there was wind, but not like now. Now it's very strong. Things are starting to fall down."

The government's AIN news agency said officials were evacuating 190,000 people from low-lying parts of tobacco-rich Pinar del Rio province on the western tip of Cuba's main island. AIN reported that 50,000 already had been evacuated farther east.

Stiff winds whipped intermittent rains across Havana, where police officers in blue and orange raincoats supervised workers removing stones, tree branches and other debris from the storied beachfront Malecon, as angry waves crashed against the sea wall below.

Some shuttered stores had hand-scrawled "closed for evacuation" signs plastered to their doors. At others, small lines formed as residents stocked up on bread. Cars waiting to fill up their tanks stretched into the street outside some gas stations.

"It's very big and we've got to get ready for what's coming," said Jesus Hernandez, a 60-year-old retiree who was using an electric drill to reinforce the roof of his rickety front porch.

The U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, was hundreds of miles to the east, out of the storm's path.

Gustav rolled over the Cayman Islands Friday with fierce winds that tore down trees and power lines while destroying docks and tossing boats ashore on Little Cayman Island, but there was little major damage.

Haiti's Interior Ministry on Saturday raised the hurricane death toll there to 66 from 59. Jamaica upped its death toll to seven from four. Gustav also killed eight people in the Dominican Republic.

Retail gas prices rose Friday for the first time in 43 days. Analysts warned that gas prices could hit $5 a gallon.

Meanwhile, the hurricane center said Tropical Storm Hanna was projected to near the Turks and Caicos Islands late today or Monday, then curl through the Bahamas by early next week before threatening Cuba.

Originally published by The Associated Press.

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