By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Ferocious Hurricane Ike ripped off roofs in the southern Bahamas on Sunday and Cuba scrambled to move hundreds of thousands of people inland, away from a storm eventually headed toward the U.S. Gulf oil patch and possibly New Orleans.
A dangerous Category 4 hurricane with 135 mph (215 kph) winds and a possible 18-foot (5.5 meter) storm surge, Ike bore down on Cuba's northeast coast after raging through Britain's Turks and Caicos, an overseas territory of about 22,000 people, and Great Inagua, the Bahamas' southernmost island.
"This one is quite severe," said Inagua resident Shanie Roker. "There is a lot of wind and rain. Roofs in Matthew Town are being damaged and trees are coming down."
Residents of the Florida Keys, a 110-mile (177-km) island chain connected by bridges with only one road out, were told to evacuate as a precaution.
Ike could follow a path similar to that of Hurricane Gustav through the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana and Texas, possibly threatening New Orleans, the city swamped by Katrina three years ago, and the Gulf energy rigs, which account for a quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of natural gas output.
MOVING TO HIGHER GROUND
Many of Cuba's 11 million people could be affected by Ike, which was expected to move ashore north of Guantanamo Bay -- home to the U.S. Navy base housing the controversial prison camp for terrorism suspects -- and spend nearly two days over the long, narrow island.
Authorities used buses, trucks and other transportation to move thousands of tourists inland from Cuba's prime resorts along the northern coast from Guardalavaca in eastern Holguin to Varadero. Ranchers herded cattle in the prime grazing areas of eastern Las Tunas and Camaguey to higher ground.
"We are at a disadvantage because there are no hills and mountains to break the wind," farm worker Artemio Madonadoemos said from the flatlands of Las Tunas. "If the storm comes through here the damage will be enormous."
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. Holguin's mines and three processing plants in the mountains were shut down.
The hurricane rained new misery on Haiti, where flooding triggered by Tropical Storm Hanna was believed to have killed at least 500 people around the port city of Gonaives.
"I believe the death toll is much higher," Gonaives chief Mayor Stephen Moise said, adding it had started raining again, floodwaters were rising and bridges linking the city to the rest of the country had collapsed.
"Gonaives is really a devastated and isolated city," he said. "We cannot bear another hurricane."
By 2 p.m. EDT, the center of Ike was just west of Great Inagua Island, where a satellite dish on the roof of a phone company building collapsed and high winds blew the shutters off the police station.
A steady stream of traffic moved along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys as some residents evacuated 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.
A homeless shelter shut down and bused its residents to Miami, and business owner Bill Murphy evacuated the staff of his adult-themed shop, and his entire collection of Halloween costumes for Key West's annual Fantasy Fest event, to Orlando.
"I've got everyone on my staff ... living with my Orlando employees," he said. "I have a big investment in the costumes because of Fantasy Fest so they were important to save too."
Ike was forecast to curve into the Gulf in the wake of Gustav, which went ashore just west of New Orleans last week, sparing the city traumatized by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused about $80 billion damage on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Ike's most likely track had it headed for the Texas-Louisiana border. But long-range forecasts have a large margin of error and a slight deviation could take it toward New Orleans.
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 U.S. Gulf coast.
Oil companies had begun returning workers to the offshore platforms that were evacuated before Gustav hit. But one company, Shell Oil Co., said on Saturday it had stopped returning workers in case new evacuations were needed.
(Additional reporting by Michael Haskins in Key West and John Marquis in Nassau, writing by Jim Loney; editing by David Wiessler)