8 Sep 2008

Hurricane Ike weakens over Cuba

10:20 pm on 8 September 2008

Hurricane Ike weakened into a Category 2 storm on Monday after roaring ashore in northeastern Cuba, but forecasters say it could regain intensity as it spins toward the American oil hub in the Gulf of Mexico and possibly New Orleans.

Ike pounded northeastern Cuba with 165 km/h winds, torrential rains and massive waves, and it could slow further to a Category 1 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale as it runs the 1,125 km island, the US National Hurricane Centre said.

Cuba's state-run television showed waves slamming into the sea wall and surging as high as nearby five-story apartment buildings before flooding the streets of the city of Baracoa near the eastern tip of the communist-ruled island.

While a dangerous Category 3 storm, Ike had ripped through the southern Bahamas and added to the misery and death toll in storm-battered Haiti. Officials said at least 61 people had died in floods in impoverished Haiti on top of 500 killed last week by Tropical Storm Hanna.

The Cuban Meteorology Institute said the storm crashed into the coast near Punta Lucrecia in the state of Holguin, about 820km southeast of Havana.

Officials said at least 1.1 million people were evacuated ahead of a storm expected to slash through the heart of Cuba, which is still reeling from Hurricane Gustav's hard hit on the west side of the long, narrow island last week.

After traversing Cuba, Ike could regain Category 3 strength over the warm Gulf of Mexico waters and threaten the 4,000 platforms that produce 25% of US oil and 15% of its natural gas, and point toward Louisiana and Texas.

Oil jumped $US1.50 to above $US107 a barrel on Monday on worries that Ike would tear through the Gulf and while traders awaited OPEC's decision this week on output policy.

Ike may threaten New Orleans, the city swamped in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,500 people and caused $US80 billion in damage on the US Gulf Coast. Gustav narrowly missed New Orleans last week.

Rainfall up to 50cm was possible in Cuba, forecasters said. As Ike roared through the Caribbean, residents of the Florida Keys, a 177km island chain connected by bridges with only one road out, were told to evacuate as a precaution.

Ike ripped off roofs and knocked over trees and power lines as it passed over Great Inagua, the Bahamas' southernmost island and Britain's Turks and Caicos islands. No deaths were reported.

It hit Turks and Caicos as a Category 4 storm with 215km/h winds, damaging 80% of the houses on Grand Turk, home to about 2,500 of the islands' 22,000 residents, government spokesman Courtney Robinson said.

Ike dumped more heavy rain on Haiti, where officials said 57 of the 61 victims on Sunday died in Cabaret, a town north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Flooding from Tropical Storm Hanna last week was believed to have killed at least 500 people around the port city of Gonaives.

NZ Red Cross workers

Two New Zealand Red Cross workers are to leave on Monday to help relief work in Haiti.

Pat Maunsell from Christchurch and Peter Moore from Wellington are to help set up a telecommunications system which the Red Cross will use to coordinate its response.