9 Sep 2008

Hurricane Ike aims for western Cuba

6:06 pm on 9 September 2008

A weakened Hurricane Ike swept toward western Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico oil fields on Monday after its high winds and heavy rains ripped a wide swath of destruction through the eastern side of the island, killing at least four people.

With top sustained winds of 130 km/h, Ike had fallen to a Category 1 storm after it blew into the Caribbean Sea and hugged the Cuban coast.

State-run Cuban media reported widespread damage throughout the eastern provinces and showed footage of toppled trees, destroyed homes, downed power lines and flooded towns, inundated by up to 25cm of rain, swollen rivers and, along the coast, a surging sea.

Cuban television said four people died in the storm, including two men who were electrocuted when they tried to take down an antenna that fell into an electric line, a woman killed when her house collapsed and a man crushed when a tree blew over onto his home.

Cuba has evacuated 1.8 million people ahead of Ike. The storm was expected to take a toll on the economy, still reeling from the destruction of more than 100,000 homes by Hurricane Gustav.

Forecasts predict Ike will take a path similar to that of Gustav, which devastated the Isle of Youth and the western province of Pinar del Rio with 240km/h winds and two days later hit Louisiana on the US Gulf Coast.

It was expected to emerge into the Gulf on Tuesday and regain strength on a path through the heart of the offshore oil fields that produce a quarter of US oil and 15%of its natural gas.

Energy companies, which shut down most Gulf oil and gas production during Gustav, delayed restarting the flow because of Ike, which was likely to pare inventories in coming weeks. Shell Oil and other energy companies said they were evacuating workers from offshore rigs.

New Orleans likely to be spared

New Orleans, the city swamped in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused $US80 billion in damage along the US Gulf Coast, appeared an increasingly unlikely target after the hurricane center shifted Ike's expected track southward late on Monday.

Gustav just missed low-lying New Orleans, which is protected by floodwalls and levees.

Ike tore roofs off houses when it hit Britain's Turks and Caicos Islands as a ferocious Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

Floods triggered by its torrential rains were blamed for at least 66 deaths in Haiti, where Tropical Storm Hanna killed 500 last week.

The US Navy ship Kearsarge arrived near Haiti on Monday with eight helicopters and three landing craft to help deliver relief supplies, the US military said.