Monday, September 8, 2008

Ike strikes Cuba

CAMAGUEY, Cuba (AP) - Deadly Hurricane Ike roared across Cuba on Monday, blowing homes to rubble and sending waves crashing over apartment buildings. Some 900,000 Cubans evacuated, and forecasters said it could hit Louisiana or Texas later this week.

Ike, which raked the Bahamas and worsened floods in Haiti that have killed 321 people, made landfall on Cuba as a fearsome Category-3 hurricane, then weakened to a still-potent Category-2 on Monday as it ran along the length of the island.

There were no immediate reports of deaths in Cuba, despite storm-whipped waves that crashed into five-story apartment buildings, hurling heavy spray over their rooftops, and winds that uprooted trees and toppled utility poles.

"I have never seen anything like it in my life. So much force is terrifying," said Olga Alvarez, 70, huddling in her living room in Camaguey with her husband and teenage grandson. "We barely slept last night. It was just `boom, boom, boom.'"

Forecasters said Ike could make a direct hit on Havana, where decaying, historic buildings are especially vulnerable, before regaining force in the Gulf of Mexico and slamming into the United States somewhere along the Gulf coast.

As the hurricane's eye passed just south of Camaguey, falling utility poles crushed cars parked along narrow streets and the roaring wind blew apart some older buildings of stone and brick, leaving behind only piles of rubble.

A tree smashed the box office of an old-fashioned movie theater downtown and toppled street signs shattered the picture windows of department stores.

Families huddled inside their homes, watching from behind the iron gates of doorways as diagonal sheets of stinging rain fed rising flood waters. A huge piece of plastic roofing spun like a top in the wind above a traffic intersection.

Sporadic reports from six of the eight eastern provinces affected indicated that at least 900,000 people had evacuated, and former President Fidel Castro released a statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies. Cuba historically has successfully carried off massive evacuations before hurricanes, sparing countless lives.

"It's a huge evacuation," said Mirtha Perez, a 65-year-old retiree taking refuge with about 1,000 others in a Camaguey art school built on stilts. "We are waiting and asking God to protect us and that nothing happens to us."

State television said officials had taken measures to protect thousands of European and Canadian tourists at vulnerable seaside resort hotels. More than 9,000 foreigners were pulled from the Varadero resort, east of Havana.

A few street signs were topped at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba and power went out temporarily in some residential areas, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Lamb said. But the military said cells containing the detainees—about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida—are hurricane-proof, and no injuries were reported.

By late morning, Ike still had maximum sustained winds of 100 mph (160 kph) about 45 miles (75 kilometers) west-southwest of Camaguey. Forecasters said it would likely move out slightly into the Caribbean, picking up strength over warm water, before making Cuban landfall again.

Ike was expected to hit Havana, 290 miles (465 kilometers) away, early Tuesday. Morning skies were only cloudy in the capital of 2 million people, but officials closed schools and seaside avenues and prepared for evacuations.

"My home is strong and it won't fall, and I'm not afraid of the wind," said Yusenia Aguilar, who lives with her two young children on Havana's western outskirts. "But the water rises a lot in this area."

Florida canceled an evacuation order from its Keys on Monday as Ike moved further south, but urged tourists to stay away until Wednesday. After passing into the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said Ike could hit land over the weekend near the Texas-Louisiana border, possibly not far from Houston.

Ike first slammed into the Turks and Caicos and the southernmost Bahamas islands as a mighty Category 4 hurricane that peeled off roofs and knocked down buildings. Officials began to assess the damage on Monday.

"It looks like Beirut," said Turks and Caicos Premier Michael Misick as his small plane landed at a Grand Turk airport where a collapsed hangar had crushed the aircraft inside.

Some people cried and hugged Misick. At one home, women called out: "No food! No food!"

Mary James, a longtime resident of Grand Turk, said up to 90 percent of the island "is just a disaster."

"I slept in the toilet, me and my family. That's how we survived," James told The Associated Press.

In flooded Haiti, Ike made an already grim situation abysmal.

At least 61 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept the impoverished Caribbean nation Sunday. Officials also found three more bodies from a previous storm, raising Haiti's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 321. A Dominican man was crushed by a falling tree.

Haiti's coastal town of Cabaret was particularly hard hit—21 victims were stacked in a mud-caked pile in a funeral home there, including two pregnant women, one with a dead girl still in her arms. Mayor Thomas Joseph Will said two more victims were found Monday.

Off Mexico, Tropical Storm Lowell was moving northwest parallel to the Pacific coast with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph). It was 280 miles (455 kilometers) south-southwest of the tip of the Baja California Peninsula, which could be threatened late in the week.

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Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; Mike Melia in Nassau, Bahamas; Jonathan Katz in Gonaives, Haiti; Alexandra Olson in Cabaret, Haiti; Anita Snow and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Cuba; and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

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