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Ike pounds Caribbean, worries U.S.

Crops in Haiti and Cuba, already soaked by previous storms, are ruined. Florida Keys residents evacuate.

September 08, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — An extremely dangerous Hurricane Ike churned through the Caribbean on Sunday with 135-mph winds that ripped apart the quaint clapboard houses of Grand Turk Island, shredded mangroves in the Bahamas and destroyed already rain-soaked crops in Haiti and Cuba.

The fourth powerful storm to ravage the islands in less than a month, Ike eased from a Category 4 hurricane to a Category 3 one, with winds of 120 mph, late in the day. It also tacked slightly northward to threaten the Florida Keys and jump-start what had been a lackadaisical evacuation.

Heavy rains from Ike's outer bands brushed the north coast of Haiti, including the flooded city of Gonaives, where hundreds were killed last week when Tropical Storm Hanna inundated rivers and washed out bridges and levees. Haitian officials reported recovering about 50 more bodies Sunday, and a Turks and Caicos Islands official said deaths had been reported there but not confirmed.

Gonaives, an impoverished port city at the foot of denuded mountains, was the scene of utter destruction four years ago, when Tropical Storm Jeanne triggered mudslides that killed at least 2,000. The toll from this season's storms grew to at least 300, with some unconfirmed estimates higher than 500.

United Nations peacekeepers deployed aid and engineering convoys toward Gonaives, but the sole bridge carrying traffic into the north from Port-au-Prince had been washed out last week, the mission reported. Airlifts were underway, but what quantities could be ferried north would be insufficient for the estimated 350,000 people without food or water.

Rice crops on the fertile plains south of Gonaives were ravaged by Hanna, and Ike's outer bands dumped more water on the inundated fields.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center forecast that Ike would move northwestward over Cuba, weakening to a Category 1 storm, with winds at 74 to 95 mph, late today.

Ike's eye hit the northern coast of Cuba in Camaguey province Sunday night, dumping as much as a foot of rain on the rural region and prompting the U.S. National Weather Service -- which collaborates with Cuban colleagues in one of the few U.S.-Cuba contacts -- to warn of flash floods and severe hazards.

Cuban authorities evacuated 250,000 people from low-lying areas and were preparing more sweeping relocations from Havana if the storm stayed on its direct course for the capital. Hurricane Gustav damaged or destroyed nearly 150,000 homes a week ago, and Ike was expected to traverse the length of the island, which has a population of 11.2 million, the head of the government meteorological institute, Jose Rubiera, told state television.

Hundreds of tourists also were moved to safer ground from north coast resorts and the crumbling historical landmarks of Havana, a city of 2.2 million where much of the housing is dilapidated and vulnerable to wind and flooding.

Despite being hit by all four major storms in recent weeks, Cuba isn't known to have suffered any fatalities, largely because of the communist government's massive and mandatory preventive evacuation policies.

Fay, Gustav and Hanna heavily damaged vital sugar cane and tobacco crops in the west, and Ike hit fields of vegetables and rice in the south and central areas hard.

At the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, the few dozen prisoners not already in maximum security facilities have been moved to the concrete-walled cellblocks to ride out the storms.

Ike was expected to clear Cuba sometime Tuesday and then move westward through the Gulf of Mexico, regaining intensity to Category 3. Forecasts beyond Wednesday varied. Projected tracks showed the storm making landfall anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to Mexico's Gulf Coast. That included Louisiana, where the 2 million people who evacuated to escape Gustav returned to their homes only a few days ago.

Most forecasts, however, suggested that Ike would travel farther west, striking the Texas Gulf Coast this weekend.

The exodus from Key West, the continental United States' southernmost city, was light for most of the day Sunday, with only about 150 people making their way to a shelter at Florida International University in Miami by midafternoon. Many other Keys residents appeared to be waiting to see what path Ike took.

A mandatory evacuation order was issued for the entire 150-mile stretch of low-lying islands, but traffic on U.S. Highway 1 was relatively light until the National Weather Service showed Ike's eye wobbling to the north late in the day.

"These storms have a mind of their own," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist told reporters as he urged those even on the fringes of the storm's path to seek safer shelter.

About 15,000 tourists had been evacuated from Key West hotels and resorts earlier in the weekend.

President Bush declared a state of emergency for Florida to release federal funds for emergency response.

Large swells created by Ike threatened the southeastern U.S. coast and could generate "life-threatening rip currents," the hurricane center warned.

Turks and Caicos Prime Minister Michael Misick reported that 80% of the housing had been damaged on Grand Turk, the governing seat of the 25,000-resident British territory. Providenciales, the more tourist-oriented island to the west, fared better but suffered widespread structural damage and sunken boats, Misick said.

The British Royal Navy diverted its warship Iron Duke to the islands to assist in relief operations.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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