HAVANA // Hurricane Ike plowed across Cuba today, killing four people with tearing winds and lashing rains as it headed toward the Gulf of Mexico and the United States. Ike, which had already killed 66 people in saturated Haiti, drove some two million Cubans from their homes and caused widespread destruction. The storm was battering the island with winds of 130 kph, making it a diminished category one storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, but was dumping enough rain to cause "life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," according to the US National Weather Service.
Cuban authorities yesterday announced plans to evacuate 170,000 people from vulnerable parts of Havana, with the storm still thrashing the island more than 24 hours after it made landfall on Sunday. Officials said the massive storm would skirt the city on Tuesday before moving over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where the bulk of US oil refineries are located, and regain strength as it churns toward the Texas coast.
The Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell said yesterday 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 defence operation around the island with millions of residents moved to safer buildings and away from the surging ocean tides. At dawn the eye of the storm was 150km south-east of Havana. 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 defence department. The storm drove seven-metre waves onto Cuba's eastern coastline as it came ashore late on Sunday, and destroyed an unknown number of homes as it swept across Camaguey province. "I'm 59, I have seen a lot of hurricanes, but I have never seen one that caused so much destruction," an unnamed resident of Camaguey told Cuban television by phone.
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 Raúl Castro and his brother former president Fidel Castro were monitoring the storm "minute by minute," with Mr Fidel, 82, "up to date with everything that is happening," a television announcer said.
After crossing the island, Ike turned onto an offshore track parallel to Cuba's south coast, putting it on a path to plough 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.
Ike's devastation followed widespread destruction wrought by Hurricane Gustav, which charged into western Cuba on 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. *AFP