Now Hurricane Ike targets Gulf of Mexico

Fierce Hurricane Ike weakened slightly as it charged across the Atlantic on Friday and took aim at south Florida and the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico, while Tropical Storm Hanna buffeted the Carolinas after killing at least 529 people in Haiti.

Hanna was expected to be just short of a category-one hurricane strength when it crosses the United States East Coast near the North Carolina and South Carolina border early on Saturday, the US National Hurricane Centre said.

Nevertheless, authorities declared states of emergency, several North Carolina beach communities were under evacuation orders, campgrounds were shut and storm alerts were issued from Georgia to New Jersey, including for Washington, DC, as the eighth tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season threatened the East Coast with flash flooding.

Ike was far more threatening.

An extremely dangerous category-four hurricane on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale on Thursday, it weakened a notch to a category-three with top sustained winds of 185km/h, the Miami-based hurricane centre said.

By 3am GMT on Saturday, it was spinning 580km east-northeast of Grand Turk Island and was expected to sweep westward over the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southern Bahamas by Sunday.

The Bahamian government sent soldiers and emergency supplies to Mayaguana and San Salvador, southern islands left short of food and water by an overdue mail boat.

“If we have heavy flooding and lose power, we could be in an uncomfortable situation,” said chief councillor Earnel Brown of the island of Mayaguana.

Some further weakening was possible but the hurricane centre said Ike was expected to remain a “major” storm of category three or higher.

Ike’s track was riddled with uncertainty.

The hurricane centre’s official forecast took it near the north coast of Cuba and the Florida Keys island chain as a ferociously destructive category-four hurricane and then into the Gulf of Mexico, where about 4 000 offshore platforms produce a quarter of US crude oil and 15% of the energy-hungry country’s natural gas.

Visitors were ordered to evacuate the Keys on Saturday and residents were ordered out beginning on Sunday.

Some computer models took Ike near the heavily populated Miami area in south-east Florida, where up to 1,3-million people could be ordered to leave the coast.

“It’s a lot coming at us. But we must remain vigilant, focused and calm,” Florida Governor Charlie Crist said.

A category-four hurricane strike on Miami would be a huge disaster because of the billions of dollars of vulnerable real estate in low-lying islands like Miami Beach and along the coast of the Florida peninsula.

Other computer models took Ike directly over Cuba, where Hurricane Gustav inflicted damage that former president Fidel Castro compared to the aftermath of a nuclear bomb.

One fewer
Tropical Storm Josephine weakened into a tropical depression far out in the Atlantic, knocking out the weakest of three storms that followed Hurricane Gustav’s rampage through the Caribbean to Louisiana. Gustav came ashore on Monday west of New Orleans, largely sparing the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

The flurry underscored predictions for an unusually busy six-month hurricane season.
An average season has 10 tropical storms, of which six strengthen into hurricanes with top sustained winds of at least 119km/h. Josephine was already this year’s 10th, and the statistical September 10 peak of the storm season still lies ahead.

While Hanna did little damage as it raced past the Bahamas and posed only a moderate threat to the US East Coast, the death toll in Haiti rose steadily as the floods unleashed by its torrential rains began to recede.

Police Commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille said 495 bodies had been found in the mud-heaped port city of Gonaives, where thousands survived by climbing on rooftops. That brought the toll for all of Haiti to at least 529.

Ships and planes had begun to arrive with desperately needed aid for Haiti, which has been hit by three deadly storms in less than a month.

By 3am GMT on Saturday, Hanna was 230km south-southwest of Wilmington, North Carolina. It was racing north at 32km/h with top winds of 115km/h.

Hanna roiled the ocean off North and South Carolina with 5,5m waves. Sunny skies gave way to showers and breezy conditions on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where residents tested power generators and tied down trash cans and beach chairs.

“It’s a little breezy but not any more than a normal rainy day,” said Lisa Bell, a manager at Howard’s Pub and Restaurant on Ocracoke Island, where the pirate Blackbeard once sailed.

The storm was expected to strike at high tide, bringing a 1,5m storm surge likely to cause moderate coastal flooding, and heavy rains were expected far inland.—Reuters

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