Hurricane Ike hits the Bahamas

September 7, 2008 5:30:06 PM PDT
Hurricane Ike bore down on Cuba after roaring across low-lying islands Sunday, tearing apart houses, wiping out crops and worsening floods in Haiti that have already killed more than 300 people. With Ike forecast to sweep across Cuba and possibly hit Havana head-on, hundreds of thousands of Cubans evacuated to shelters or higher ground. To the north, residents of the Florida Keys fled up a narrow highway, fearful that the "extremely dangerous" hurricane could hit them Tuesday.

At least 48 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept Haiti Sunday, raising the nation's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 306. A Dominican man was crushed by a falling tree. It was too early to know of deaths on other islands where the most powerful winds were still blowing.

Ike's center hit the Bahamas' Great Inagua island, where the roofs of its two shelters both sprung leaks under the 135 mph (217 kph) winds. As the storm passed, people inside peeked through windows at toppled trees and houses stripped of their roofs.

"It's nasty. I can't remember getting hit like this," reserve police officer Henry Nixon said from inside a shelter holding about 85 people.

Great Inagua has about 1,000 people and about 50,000 West Indian flamingos - the world's largest breeding colony. Both populations sought safety from the winds and driving rain, with the pink flamingos gathering in mangrove thickets. Biologists worried that their unique habitat could be destroyed.

"There's a possibility that the habitat can't really be replaced, and that they can't find an equivalent spot," said Greg Butcher, bird conservation director for the National Audubon Society. "You might have a significant drop in the number of flamingos."

At 8 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT), Ike had weakened slightly to a Category 3 hurricane with top winds of 120 mph (195 kph). It was about 30 miles off Cuba's northern coast, moving westward at 14 mph (22 kph).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted Ike's eye would make landfall early Monday and could hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people with many vulnerable old buildings, by Monday night.

Cuba's government said more than 224,000 people were being evacuated in the central-eastern province of Camaguey alone.

Foreign tourists were pulled out from vulnerable beach resorts, workers rushed to protect coffee plants and other crops, and plans were under way to distribute food and cooking oil to disaster areas.

"There's no fear here, but one has to prepared. It could hit us pretty hard," said Ramon Olivera, gassing up his motorcycle in Camaguey, where municipal workers boarded up banks and restaurants.

The first islands to bear Ike's fury Sunday were the Turks and Caicos, which have little natural protection from storm surges of up to 18 feet (5.5 meters).

The British territory's Premier Michael Misick said more than 80 percent of the homes were damaged on two islands and people who didn't take refuge in shelters were cowering in closets and under stairwells, "just holding on for life."

"They goere all ferries were secured and beaches were off limits. The military said cells containing the detainees - about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida - are hurricane-proof. But the base was spared the strongest winds.

Where Ike goes after Cuba was hard to predict, leaving millions from Florida to Mexico worrying where it will strike.

"These storms have a mind of their own," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said as tourists and then residents evacuated the Keys along a narrow highway.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin prepared for the possibility of more havoc only days after an historic, life-saving evacuation of more than 2 million people from Hurricane Gustav.

"Our citizens are weary and they're tired and they have spent a lot of money evacuating," Nagin worried. "It will be very difficult to move the kind of numbers out of this city that we moved during Gustav."

Off western Mexico, Tropical Storm Lowell was moving northwest parallel to the coast. But the hurricane center predicted it will veer into the Baja California Peninsula next weekend.

Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; Mike Melia in Nassau, Bahamas; Jonathan Katz in Gonaives, Haiti; Alexandra Olson in Cabaret, Haiti; Anita Snow in Havana, Cuba; and Danica Coto and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.