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Ike crashes across Cuba

Hurricane Ike tore into eastern Cuba on Monday, knocking down hundreds of buildings and killing at least four people there as it aimed for the storm-ravaged western end of the island and possible landfall later this week along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"It was tremendous. I've never heard so much wind and noise," said Migdalia Rodriguez, 60, who spent the night hunkered down with relatives at a family-run bed-and-breakfast in the city of Camaguey. "They say it's the worst storm we've had in 50 years, but we're surviving."

The United States was bracing for Ike's next wallop. Ike was a Category 1 storm Monday, but forecasters expect it to strengthen again before hitting Louisiana or Texas this weekend.

With the storm on a new track away from the low-lying island chain, Florida Keys officials let an evacuation order expire Monday. Ike is still supposed to deliver heavy rain and wind there.

In Haiti, separated from the eastern tip of Cuba by only 50 miles of water, Ike's winds and rain left a trail of muddy devastation and death. Sixty-one people were killed Sunday, bringing to at least 331 the number of victims from four storms on the island in three weeks. Officials said the death toll was sure to rise as more bodies are pulled from the mud.

In Cabaret, dozens of children were swept away after a river jumped its banks. There were also unconfirmed reports of people being swept from their beds by a storm surge early Sunday in Cap-Haitien on the north coast.

Worst affected was the city of Gonaives, where 160 people died last week from flash floods caused by Hanna. Large parts of the city were still under water when Ike brought more flooding, cutting off all access roads to the city. The United Nations is coordinating a relief effort to bring food and drinking water by helicopter and ship.

This year's hurricane season is testing Cuba's renowned emergency services as never before. "In all of Cuba's history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together," Jose Rubiera, head of Cuba's meteorological service, told state TV.

For Ike, Cuba evacuated an estimated 1.2-million people in low-lying coastal areas and along rivers. As the storm shifted to the south Monday, hopes were raised that Havana and its aging buildings could be spared a direct hit. But even a glancing strike on the crowded Cuban capital, where tenements are especially vulnerable to even moderate rains and winds, could be catastrophic.

In Camaguey, the country's third largest city, residents took shelter in local schools. "We are specialists in this. We've had a lot of experience over the years," said Migdalia Rodriguez.

Late Monday, Cuba's western province of Pinar del Rio, famous for the tobacco that feeds the island's cigar industry, was bracing for its second major hurricane in a week. Gustav's Category 4 winds damaged 90,000 homes and collapsed the power system.

Compared with Cuba's efficient, nationwide storm planning, Haiti's response is a patchwork affair. The country's Civil Protection Bureau has improved enormously in recent years, experts say, thanks to international training and funding following deadly flooding in 2004 and 2005.

"We strengthened them a great deal with a lot of training," said John Currelly, a veteran Canadian development worker in Haiti. "It has paid off. These last few weeks there was constant word on the radio, 'Do this, do that.' They were doing their utmost."

But Haiti's resources remain shockingly thin. Gonaives, a city of 200,000, has a police force of just 15 officers and three cars. Haiti is vulnerable to flash floods because poor Haitians have stripped the mountainsides of trees to make charcoal for cooking.

The recovery effort will be hindered due to devastation of cropland in the Artibonite Valley, the center of rice production.

"The fields have all been destroyed," said Eva DeHart, founder of For Haiti With Love, a Palm Harbor charity that supports a medical clinic and feeding program in Cap-Haitien.

"The country is going to have to be subsidized from outside until they can plant again," she said. "It's just a really, really desperate situation."

DeHart is flying to Cap-Haitien next week with cash and supplies for the clinic. "By bringing in money we can help the merchants by buying what they have in stock, and we can help the poor by giving it away."

Over the weekend, Aileen Josaphat, 33, of Wesley Chapel scanned the TV channels. Unable to reach her father, brother, and nieces and nephews in Haiti, Josaphat decided to help organize a local relief effort.

"I'm on edge, so I was like, let me try to do my part," said Josaphat, a U.S.-born manager for an insurance company.

Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

>>fast facts

To help Haiti

• Call Judith Lamadieu with the Haitian Association Foundation of Tampa Bay at (813) 960-1631. Online: haftb.org.

What's needed: hygiene kits with toothbrushes, soap and toilet paper; blankets; summer clothes for men, women and children; shoes; sandals; mosquito repellent; diarrhea and malaria medication with expiration dates no earlier than April 2009.

• Call Eva DeHart with For Haiti With Love at (727) 942-6945. Donations can be mailed to 4767 Simcoe St., Palm Harbor, Fla., 34683-1311. Online: forhaitiwithlove.org.

Ike crashes across Cuba 09/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 4:35pm]

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