Hundreds of thousands flee hurricane in Cuba

Barely a week after Hurricane Gustav devastated western Cuba, the island was battening down the hatches again on Sunday for another killer storm, with more than half-a-million people evacuating Cuba’s north-east coast, officials said.

Hurricane Ike, labelled an “extremely dangerous” storm already responsible for at least 20 deaths in heavily flooded Haiti, was on course to barrel into Cuba’s north-eastern flank on Sunday night, and authorities were leaving little to chance.

In Camaguey province 225 000 residents evacuated, 150 000 were mobilised in Santiago de Cuba and 108 000 in Holguin, while 120 000 people—including 13 000 tourists—took shelter in the western province of Matanzas, near the capital, Havana.

Another 16 000 people evacuated their homes in Guantánamo province, site of a major United States naval base, authorities said, as Ike’s outer rain bands began to lash the eastern coast.

The communist government’s internationally recognised storm-preparedness was in full effect on Sunday as medical equipment, food and potable water were mobilised, fuel and power generators prepared and homes secured across the country.

Vice-President Jose Ramon Machado, meeting authorities in Holguin, urged people to “carry out the evacuation in an orderly and speedy fashion”, and to take steps to “avoid the loss of life”.

Ike is raging into the Caribbean from the Atlantic as a category-four storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of 215km/h.

Ike “is a danger for all of Cuba’s national territory”, warned forecaster Jose Rubiera. Cuba’s population tops 11-million.

At 6pm GMT on Sunday the centre of the storm was 155km east of Guantánamo, Cuba, the US National Hurricane Centre reported.

“Eastern and central Cuba could see six to 12 inches [15cm to 30cm] of rain with isolated maximum amounts of up to 20 inches [50cm] possible,” the centre said.

The hurricane also threatens Havana, whose population of 2,2-million has been put on alert. Residents were stocking up on food, fuel and other supplies.

In Cuba, a fragile and ageing housing stock is highly vulnerable to hurricanes.
Havana in particular has many colonial-era buildings, crowded with families and prone to cave-ins.

A week ago Gustav crashed across western Cuba leaving widespread destruction of homes, businesses and schools. There were no known casualties but about 140 000 homes were seriously damaged or destroyed, authorities said.

Haiti’s misery
Haitians took to their roofs to escape rising flood waters on Sunday for the second time in a week as squalls from Hurricane Ike added insult to their misery, inundating homes and collapsing a bridge on the last open land route for aid to the desperate city of Gonaives.

Above Haiti’s coastal floodplain, in the Artibonite Valley, authorities prepared to open an overflowing dam, inundating more homes and possibly causing lasting damage to Haiti’s “rice bowl”, a key farming area whose revival is key to rescuing the starving country.

“Please evacuate as soon as you can,” Agriculture Minister Joanas Gay urged Artibonite residents on state-run Radio Nationale.

Rains also pelted Haiti’s northern coast as the hurricane made its way from the Bahamas west toward Cuba, but a United Nations humanitarian aid coordinator said there were no reports of major flooding, deaths or evacuations there.

The hurricane’s full force skirted the Dominican Republic, but heavy rains and winds forced 4 160 people into shelters and a 60-year-old farmer was crushed to death by an uprooted tree, said Minerva Santos, civil defence director in the northern town of Nagua.

Dominican authorities also found the body of a fisherman who drowned in the Atlantic during Tropical Storm Hanna a week ago.

In central Haiti, the flooding caused the collapse of the Mirebalais bridge, cutting off the last land route into Gonaives, where international aid organisations have struggled to reach residents with food, drinking water and other relief supplies.

As UN peacekeepers set out in trucks to deliver more aid, scores of young men splashed alongside, begging for help. One called out with a bullhorn: “Hey, hey, my friend. Give me some water.”

UN security was beefed up on Sunday to keep order. A line of 3 000 people snaked around a warehouse turned UN shelter, and several hundred pushed and shoved to break down the door, only to be quickly subdued by Bolivian troops in riot gear.

Residents also faced petrol shortages and price hikes, with fuel reaching 500 Haitian gourdes ($13 a gallon).

Thanks in large part to the arrival of a container ship from Port-au-Prince with 33 tons of supplies from the UN’s World Food Programme, relief workers in Gonaives said they had enough emergency food supplies for the next couple of days even though flooding closed all roads and grounded flights into Haiti’s fourth-largest city.—Sapa-AFP, Sapa-AP

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