Havana on maximum alert as hurricane draws near

Cuba raised its hurricane alert level to maximum on Monday for Havana as deadly Hurricane Ike raged westward across the island towards the capital, Cuban state television announced.

The storm weakened as it raged through Cuba, where it blew off roofs, toppled trees and flattened sugar-cane fields like a giant lawn mower on a path toward the United States oil hub in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil prices rose by $1,50 to above $107 a barrel on concerns that Ike would further disrupt energy output from the Gulf, which produces one-quarter of US oil and 15% of its natural gas. Much of that production was shut down by Hurricane Gustav’s strike on the Louisiana coast last Monday.

Ike was expected to hit near eastern Texas, but a small deviation could threaten New Orleans, the city swamped in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1 500 people and caused $80-billion in damage on the US Gulf Coast. Gustav narrowly missed the low-lying city protected by floodwalls and levees.

The storm tore roofs off houses when it hit Britain’s Turks and Caicos Islands as a ferocious category-four hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, and floods triggered by its torrential rains were blamed for 61 deaths in Haiti, where 500 were killed by Tropical Storm Hanna last week.

Angry waves
Ike weakened to a category-two storm with 160km/h winds after roaring ashore in north-eastern Cuba late on Sunday near Punta Lucrecia in the state of Holguin, about 823km south-east of Havana.

Cuba’s state-run television showed angry waves slamming into the sea wall and surging as high as nearby five-storey apartment buildings before flooding the streets of the city of Baracoa near the eastern tip of the Communist-ruled island.

The storm was expected to traverse much of the 1 125km island.
It stripped ripening coffee from trees on the eastern part of the island, where 85% of Cuba’s coffee is grown, paralysed the nickel industry and destroyed sugar infrastructure.

“It seemed like the night would never end. Water. Wind. We are going to have to call on our African gods to recover from this,” Eduardo Hernandez said by telephone from the city of Holguin. “There are trees and utility poles down everywhere.”

Forecasters said Ike would hit Havana as it left the island on Tuesday. Authorities prepared to evacuate tens of thousands of residents from crumbling tenements, low-lying neighbourhoods and areas along the north coast.

“Attention Havana, attention Havana. Havana is on hurricane alert. All residents must strictly follow the instructions of the civil defence,” local radio said repeatedly.

Officials said at least 1,1-million people were evacuated from vulnerable areas in Cuba, which is still reeling from Hurricane Gustav’s strike on western provinces last week.

At noon GMT, Ike was 32km south of Camaguey, Cuba, heading west at 23km/h, the US National Hurricane Centre said. It was expected to reach the Gulf by Tuesday afternoon.

Rainfall of up to 50cm in Cuba was possible, forecasters said.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has taken to writing columns since handing over power to his brother Raul, wrote on Sunday that the flow of international aid to Cuba since Gustav showed that it had many friends who wanted to help.

He said, without giving details, that close ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had taken “measures that make up the most generous gesture of solidarity that our country has known”.

Just to the north of Cuba, schools, hospitals and government offices were closed in the Florida Keys, a 177km island chain connected by a single road.

The fragile islands were not expected to take a direct hit, but tourists were evacuated and residents were told to leave as a precaution.—Reuters, Sapa-AFP

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