Ferocious Hurricane Ike threatens Cuba, Gulf

Hurricane Ike barrelled toward Cuba as an extremely dangerous category-four storm on Sunday and was forecast to sweep into the central Gulf of Mexico as a large and powerful storm echoing Hurricane Gustav.

Ike’s top sustained winds reached 215km/h, making it an “extremely dangerous” category-four on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, the United States National Hurricane Centre said.

Forecasters said Ike could strengthen further before sweeping into Cuba late on Sunday, severely threatening sugar-cane fields, the tourist hotels of Varadero and the crumbling colonial buildings of Havana.

The densely populated Miami-Fort Lauderdale area in south Florida seemed an increasingly less likely target, but visitors were ordered to flee the vulnerable Florida Keys island chain on Saturday.

Ike was forecast to curve into the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of this week’s Hurricane Gustav, plowing toward an area that produces one-quarter of domestic US oil. Gustav slammed ashore near New Orleans, which was swamped and traumatised by Hurricane Katrina three years ago but largely spared by Gustav.

Oil companies had begun returning workers to the offshore platforms that were evacuated before Gustav hit Louisiana on Monday west of New Orleans. But one company, Shell Oil, said on Saturday it had stopped returning workers in case new evacuations were needed.

The deeper Ike goes into Cuba, the weaker it will be once it re-emerges over the Gulf of Mexico.
But over water it is expected to regain its former intensity rapidly.

“In five days there will be a large hurricane in the central Gulf of Mexico,” the hurricane centre said.

Alerts went up across eastern Cuba as residents shivered at the prospect of another major storm a week after Hurricane Gustav devastated parts of western Cuba. Tourists were evacuated from the Guardalavaca resort on Holguin province’s northern coast, as were thousands of students picking coffee in the mountains.

‘Danger zone’
In Havana, residents lined up at petrol stations and searched stores for candles, crackers and canned goods after a forecaster warned on state television that “almost the entire country is in the danger zone”.

“It looks like this year we will have no respite,” Eduardo Gonzalez said from eastern Santiago de Cuba, “and if it continues like this we will have to live out the hurricane season in the shelters.”

Ike pounded Britain’s Turks and Caicos islands on Saturday on a course that would take it through the southern Bahamas and then westward across the length of Cuba. By 3am GMT on Sunday the centre of the storm was near Grand Turk Island.

Ike was forecast to batter the islands in its path with storm surge flooding up to 5,5m above normal tides. It was also expected to rain new misery on Haiti, where hundreds of people died in flooding and mudslides caused by three earlier storms in the past month.

In the low-lying Florida Keys, visitors were ordered out on Saturday and residents were told to evacuate on Sunday along the lone road linking the island chain to the mainland.

John Vagnoni, owner of the Green Parrot Bar in Key West, said there would be no hurricane party there. “We don’t do a hurricane party, per se, at the Parrot,” Vagnoni said. “Let’s take care of our own houses, be safe and then, afterward, there will be plenty of time to have a party. I’d much rather have a survivors’ party.”

Ike set its sights on Cuba after Tropical Storm Hanna sloshed ashore over North and South Carolina early on Saturday morning, felling trees and causing power failures and isolated flooding.

Hanna sped north-east along the US East Coast, bringing heavy rains to the mid-Atlantic states and southern New England, spinning off a tornado that damaged about 100 homes in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

In the New York metropolitan area, gusts and downpours halted play at the US Open tennis tournament, delaying the women’s finals and one men’s semifinal until Sunday. Airports stayed open but flights were delayed by up to three hours.

Hanna still had 93km/h winds but was forecast to lose its tropical characteristics as it moved north-east over the Canadian Maritime provinces on Sunday.—Reuters