Ike gains strength over Gulf, aims for Texas

Published 1:26 pm Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hurricane Ike grew stronger as it barreled across the warm, energizing waters of the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday toward the Texas coast after crashing through Cuba’s tobacco country and toppling aging Havana buildings.

Forecasters said the Category 1 storm could become a major Category 3 hurricane before slamming into Texas or northern Mexico on Saturday.

Ike has already killed at least 80 people in the Caribbean, and Texas put 7,500 National Guard members on standby and urged coastal residents to stock up on supplies. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency was uncertain when it could begin evacuations along the coast.

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Cuban state television said some 2.6 million people — nearly a fourth of the island’s population — sought refuge from Ike, which killed four people as it swept across the length of the country. Power was still mostly out in Havana on Wednesday.

Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura said the storm damaged at least 27,000 homes in eastern Cuba, but that tally will rise sharply because it does not include Havana or many other regions where officials are still battling flood waters as they struggle to catalog losses.

Cuba also announced that the hurricane “obligated a gradual decrease in nickel production,” which replaced tourism last year as the island’s top foreign exchange earner.

On the capital’s Malecon coastal highway, crews tried to rescue an elderly man from beneath a pile of rubble outside his apartment building.

Firefighter Lt. Col. Rolando Menendez said the man, still believed to be alive, returned to his seaside home without official approval and a concrete piece of the building’s fourth floor slipped loose and fell on him.

As it left Cuba, Ike delivered a punishing blow to western towns such as Los Palacios, which already suffered a direct hit from a Category-4 Hurricane Gustav on Aug. 30.

In a poor neighborhood along the train tracks, the combined fury of Ike and Gustav left nearly two-thirds of the wooden homes leveled or without roofs.

“The first one left me something, but this one left me nothing,” said Olga Atiaga, a 53-year-old housewife. Gustav obliterated her roof and some walls. Then Ike blew away a mattress and smashed the kitchen sink.

“I don’t even have anything to sleep on,” she said.

Odalis Cruz, a 45-year-old housing inspector, said she evacuated to a shelter in the town’s rice mill when it became clear Ike was following Gustav’s path through Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province where Cuba produces tobacco used in its famous cigars.

She surveyed the damage to her home Tuesday.

“We repaired the roof two days ago and this one took the new one,” she said. “I’m ready to move to Canada! We have spent eight days drying out things, cleaning everything, sleeping on the floor, and now we are hit again.”

Gustav damaged at least 100,000 homes but didn’t kill anyone because of massive evacuations. Cubans were ordered to evacuate for Ike as well, with those in low-lying or wooden homes seeking safety with friends or relatives in sturdier structures. Others were taken to government shelters.

State television said Ike killed at least four people in eastern Cuba. Two men died while removing an antenna from a roof, a woman was killed when her home collapsed and another man was killed by a falling tree.

Evacuations are not mandatory except for pregnant women and small children, but in an authoritarian state, few people ignore the government’s advice.

In Havana, towering waves broke over the Malecon as downpours soaked historic but crumbling buildings in the capital’s picturesque older areas. Some of the most dilapidated structures collapsed, including four houses on a single block.

Police told 21-year-old Niyel Rodriguez she had to move to a shelter with her 19-day-old daughter Chanel. She huddled Tuesday with 109 expectant and new mothers and their children in a wing of an Old Havana maternity hospital.

“They came looking for me yesterday and brought me here in a patrol car,” Rodriguez said. “I probably would have been scared to stay at home with my little one, and here they take good care of us.”

Elsewhere, officials evacuated about 10,000 tourists from vulnerable seaside hotels, mostly from Varadero beach, east of Havana.

Ike’s possible threat to Gulf oil installations didn’t keep crude oil prices from dipping more than US$1, to US$102.15 a barrel, in late-morning trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Both Ike and Gustav damaged buildings in Pinar del Rio associated with tobacco production, but the tobacco crop was spared because it is not in season.

Mexican officials warned that unrelated heavy rains in the northern part of the country had caused more than a dozen dams to reach capacity or spill over. If Ike brings more rain to the area, evacuations may be needed.

Ike was centered about 225 miles west-southwest of Key West, Florida, and about 430 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River late Wednesday morning. It was generally moving northwest at 8 mph and its maximum sustained winds remained near 90 mph, still a little short of Category 2 strength.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Lowell weakened to a tropical depression off Mexico’s Pacific coast and it was expected to move across the Baja California Peninsula Wednesday night or Thursday morning. It had maximum sustained of near 35 mph.