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Ike topples buildings in Havana

The weakened storm moves out to sea on a course for Texas. It is expected to pick up strength by Thursday.

September 10, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — A weakened Hurricane Ike toppled dozens of dilapidated buildings in Havana on Tuesday as the storm that killed scores in a weeklong blast through the Caribbean moved into the Gulf of Mexico on a course for Texas.

Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center here projected that the storm, which weakened to a Category 1 hurricane with 75-mph winds as it exited Cuba during the afternoon, would track westward to strike near the Texas-Mexico border by the weekend, bypassing most of the U.S. oil industry's drilling operations in the gulf.

But Ike was expected to intensify as it crossed the warm gulf waters in the coming days, amassing winds of at least 111 mph to gain Category 3 force by Thursday.

"Now that Ike has emerged into the Gulf of Mexico, strengthening is expected and Ike could become a major hurricane in the central gulf," the hurricane center stated.

The Cuban capital had braced for the worst, with authorities evacuating thousands of residents from the city's most decrepit buildings, bringing to 1.23 million the number of Cubans displaced by the storm. An enclave of treasured but decaying Spanish colonial and Art Deco architecture, Havana loses dozens, sometimes hundreds, of buildings every year to collapse from poor maintenance and severe weather.

State television showed images of a storm surge crashing over the hip-high Malecon seaside parapet and sweeping across the empty road that separates the waterfront from some of the most vulnerable buildings in the capital.

Ike dumped at least a foot of rain on devastated Pinar del Rio province as it made its way out of Cuba. That westernmost area of tobacco, coffee and sugar cane crops suffered widespread damage 10 days earlier when Hurricane Gustav tore through the fields with winds of 150 mph. The earlier storm toppled 140,000 buildings, most of them small wooden bungalows housing farming families, and at least 10,000 more fell as Ike made its three-day blast across the island.

Cuba's National Defense Council for Disaster Cases identified four people killed by the latest hurricane, two electrocuted in Villa Clara province as they tried to dismantle a television antenna and two killed when their homes collapsed on them in Camaguey and Holguin provinces. Fatalities are rare in Cuba despite the frequency of hurricanes, a fact ascribed to the government's mass evacuation practices whenever storms threaten populated areas.

A senior civil defense officer, Col. Jose Betancourt, told Cuban media that the country had sustained serious and widespread damage to its housing stock. He warned those evacuated against returning to their homes until a special commission assesses the safety of those structures.

Electricity and gas supplies for the capital's 2.2 million residents were cut off during the storm to prevent accidental explosions and electrocutions, the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina reported.

In Geneva, officials with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said estimates of the recent damage to Cuba could reach $4 billion. That would be a staggering cost for a nation where the average income is less than $20 a month and the key economic contributors of tourism, nickel, cigars and rum suffered from the three storms that hit the Communist-ruled island over the last month.

Work stopped in Cuba's nickel mines and processing plants last week as residents prepared to evacuate, cutting into the island's most valuable export.

The United Nations also appealed for aid to Haiti, where at least 800,000 people remained without food, clean water or shelter, and authorities were still unsure of the full death toll because many flooded and mud-deluged towns remained inaccessible. The U.S. Navy's amphibious assault ship Kearsarge deployed to Haiti on Monday loaded with relief supplies and began ferrying aid to cut-off areas with its two helicopters on Tuesday.

Ike barely grazed Haiti with its outer bands last week. But it packed winds of up to 135 mph and dumped rain on coastal and mountain areas already inundated by Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Hanna only days earlier. The country had also been deluged by Tropical Storm Fay a month ago.

Hurricane center forecast tracks showed Ike moving across the open gulf waters through Friday, drawing intensity ahead of a predicted landfall Saturday.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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