Deadly Ike Slams Cuba, Eyes Gulf of Mexico

HAVANA (Dow Jones Newswires), September 9, 2008

Hurricane-force winds hit Havana early Tuesday as Ike pummeled Cuba with lashing rains and towering waves that have already killed four people.

The storm plowed across the island as a diminished category one storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, but was expected to regain strength over western Cuba and get even stronger when it reaches the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico by Wednesday and tears toward Texas.

Ike, which already killed 66 people in saturated Haiti, drenched Cuba with enough rain to cause "life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," according to the U.S. National Weather Service.

Some two million Cubans had been driven from their homes by the storm's winds topping 130 kph (80 mph) more than 24 hours after it first made landfall on Sunday.

Officials said the massive storm would likely pass over western Cuba on Tuesday before heading to the Gulf of Mexico, where the bulk of U.S. oil refineries are located. Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell said Monday it had already evacuated 150 workers and would move its remaining 500 employees in the Gulf by Wednesday.

Authorities in Cuba have mounted a massive civil defense operation around the island with millions of residents moved to safer buildings and away from the surging ocean tides.

At 0900 GMT the eye of the storm was 85 miles (135 km) south-southeast of Havana. The city had ground to a halt early Tuesday, with no transit, no commercial business and swathes of the city without electricity.

The hurricane killed three men and a woman in Cuba, a relatively rare event in a country which prides itself on preparedness in facing down the hurricane season's tempests.

"There is substantial damage in housing, and we are evaluating the farm sector," said Col. Jose Betancourt of the civil defense department.

Cuban authorities also said seven people had been injured as Ike crossed from east to west.

In Holguin province, electric poles were knocked flat on roads, trees blown down and roofs shredded, according to television reports.

Cuban television reported that both President Raul Castro and his brother former president Fidel Castro were monitoring the storm "minute by minute," with Fidel, 82, "up to date with everything that is happening," a television announcer said.

Ike whipped across the island before turning onto an offshore track parallel to Cuba's south coast, putting it on a path to plow by the Isle of Youth and cross the country a second time in western Pinar del Rio province. That was where Hurricane Gustav flattened villages and destroyed crops just over a week ago.

In Baracoa, Ike sent waves spraying the tops of five-story buildings, and hundreds of homes were destroyed, many of them swept away by raging currents.

"I have never seen anything like this," said one 57-year-old Baracoa resident.

Ike's devastation followed widespread destruction wrought by Hurricane Gustav, which charged into western Cuba August 30 and destroyed or severely damaged 140,000 homes and buildings.

"In all of Cuba's history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together," said the head of Cuba's meteorological service, Jose Rubiera, on state television.

Ike plowed across the Turks and Caicos and southern Bahamas Saturday and Sunday as a powerful category four storm, causing extensive damage but no reported deaths.

Worst-affected was Haiti, where four storms in three weeks have killed more than 600 people and left hundreds of thousands desperate for food, clean water and shelter.

Officials continued aid operations in the stricken town of Gonaives, where hundreds died in devastating floods from Tropical Storm Hanna, but continued stormy weather and bridge collapses hampered relief efforts.

As thousands awaited relief, the U.S. Navy deployed a helicopter carrier off Haiti's coast to help with relief efforts.

The USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship loaded with relief supplies, will help move cargo and equipment between Port-au-Prince and Gonaives, Saint-Marc and other stricken areas, the military said.

Copyright (c) 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Read more on preparations for Hurricane Ike in Rigzone's Special Coverage Preparing for Ike to Strike.