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Keys keep eye on Ike as Cuba is slammed

Residents stand on the second floor of a house damaged by Hurricane Ike in Cabaret, Haiti, on Sunday. The storm killed 58 people in the country.

Associated Press

Residents stand on the second floor of a house damaged by Hurricane Ike in Cabaret, Haiti, on Sunday. The storm killed 58 people in the country.

KEY WEST — It appeared Sunday that most of Florida will again dodge a direct hit from a major hurricane, though Ike had the Keys under a hurricane watch in preparation for impact Tuesday.

Nearly three weeks after Tropical Storm Fay grazed the Keys, Ike prompted a mandatory evacuation of all Keys residents and tourists by 4 p.m. Sunday.

Sunday's forecast had Ike heading into the Gulf of Mexico later this week after roaring into Cuba on Sunday. Ike was forecast to sweep the length of Cuba and possibly hit Havana head-on.

The Keys had a 69 percent chance of seeing tropical storm force winds and a 21 percent chance of getting sustained hurricane force winds from Ike. Tropical storm conditions over the Keys are likely tonight and Tuesday.

In Texas and Louisiana, where people were just returning from the mass evacuation for a weaker-than-expected Gustav, officials acknowledged that it may be difficult to get people mobilized again.

Whether people leave or stay, the danger of Hurricane Ike is fearsome.

With winds up to 135 mph, the storm struck the Turks and Caicos Islands early Sunday, where rain came in horizontally, according to witnesses, and more than 80 percent of the homes were reported damaged.

In Haiti, the storm killed 58, as people took to their roofs to escape rising floodwaters for the second time in a week. Ike also collapsed a bridge that cut the last land route into the starving city of Gonaives, already reeling from Hanna.

Haiti's death toll was at least 319 from four storms that have hit the country in less than a month.

All but one of Sunday's victims came in the Cabaret area north of Port-au-Prince, according to civil defense director Maria-Alta Jean Baptiste. She said three more bodies were found in Gonaives, victims of an earlier storm.

Witnesses in Cabaret said floodwaters rushed into homes in the middle of the night, crushing walls and reaching chest-high levels before receding Sunday morning and leaving everything caked in mud. At the Always Funeral Home, 21 mud-crusted bodies were piled in a small room, unclaimed.

The rain had stopped by late afternoon, but authorities feared flooding could continue as water collecting in the mountains continued to run downhill. Much of Gonaives remained inaccessible, even to United Nations peacekeepers in trucks, because of rising waters and strong currents.

Food and fuel prices skyrocketed in Haiti, with gasoline reaching $13 a gallon. A line of 3,000 people snaked around a warehouse-turned-U.N. shelter and several hundred tried to break down the door, only to be quickly subdued by Bolivian troops in riot gear.

In Cuba, more than 700,000 Cubans were evacuated from vulnerable and low-lying homes Sunday as authorities frantically prepared for the second hurricane in eight days.

The picture for Cuba could hardly have been worse. Nearly the entire country was inside Ike's forecast cone when the slightly weakened storm barreled in with 125 mph winds at the eastern city of Cabo Lucrecia on Sunday evening.

It was eastern Cuba's first monstrous hurricane, meteorologist Jose Rubiera told Cubavision. "These people have never seen a Category 4 — or a Category 3."

Models showed Ike crossing practically the entire island east to west, exiting Havana on Tuesday as a far weaker storm, sparing only the western provinces that were pummeled last week by Hurricane Gustav.

It was expected to spend at least a day and a half in Cuba.

Cuba's frantic evacuation effort began early Sunday, when Ike was a Category 4 — winds of 111-130 mph — storm. Gustav, which hit the island last week, was also a Category 4, and it damaged about 125,000 homes and caused widespread destruction.

Despite the danger facing Cubans, the Bush administration said Sunday it sees no wisdom in ending an economic embargo against Cuba to speed aid to the nation.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, wrapping up a trip to North Africa, said President Bush consistently has said the United States would be responsive "to a Cuban regime that is prepared to release political prisoners (and) has a process to get to free and fair elections." But, she added, "we can see nothing that suggests that has come about."

Efforts to bring oil and gas production back online in the Gulf of Mexico slowed Sunday as Ike aimed at the nation's energy complex. Royal Dutch Shell said it would keep staffing at its offshore installations to a minimum as it monitors the storm. Other producers were watching Ike, which could strike the U.S. coast by midweek.

"Offshore oil and gas operators in the Gulf of Mexico who are re-boarding platforms and rigs and restoring production following Hurricane Gustav are now starting to take precautions for Hurricane Ike," the U.S. Minerals Management Service said on Sunday.

Also Sunday, Bush spoke with Gov. Charlie Crist to check on the state's preparations and the federal coordination.

Information from McClatchy Newspapers, Associated Press and Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet was used in this report.

Keys keep eye on Ike as Cuba is slammed 09/08/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 4:13pm]
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