Ike kills 4 in Cuba, takes aim at Mexico, US Gulf

Published 1:47 pm Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hurricane Ike roared across Cuba west of the densely populated capital’s aging buildings Tuesday after tearing down the length of the island nation, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate.

Residents in Texas and northern Mexico braced for a weekend hit from Ike, which has already killed at least 80 people in the Caribbean.

Winds howled and heavy rains fell across Havana, where streets were empty. Towering waves broke over the graceful Malecon seaside promenade, which police had barricaded off the previous evening. Many of the historic apartment buildings along its length are in poor repair and vulnerable to collapse.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Police spread out across the city to halt all but emergency and official traffic. Roadways were strewn with tree branches and rocks, and the rubble from crumbling balconies littered sidewalks. Navigation was banned in Havana Bay, its usually placid surface stirred up by white-capped waves.

Teresa Tejeda, scared to stay in her dilapidated Old Havana home, evacuated with several hundred other elderly people to a government shelter.

“My house has really bad walls and I feel much more secure here,” said Tejeda, who is in her 70s.

Cuba, which has carried out well-executed evacuations for years, ordered hundreds of thousands of people — more than a tenth of its 11 million people — to seek safety with friends and relatives or at government shelters.

State television reported that Ike killed four people in Cuba, the island’s first storm deaths this year. Two men were killed removing an antenna from a roof, a woman died when her home collapsed and a man was killed by a falling tree.

No one was killed when Gustav tore across western Cuba, the same area Ike was pounding Tuesday, as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 30, damaging 100,000 homes and causing billions of dollars in damage. That was largely because 250,000 people were evacuated.

Evacuations are not mandatory in Cuba except for pregnant women and small children, but in an authoritarian state, few people would think to ignore the government’s advice and state news media make an example of the few who pay the ultimate price when they fail to move out.

Police told Niyel Rodriguez, 21, that 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 converted into a shelter. Obstetricians and nurses were on hand in case anyone needed help.

“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. They give us breakfast, lunch and dinner and everything we need for the babies.”

State television said officials had taken measures to protect tourists at vulnerable seaside hotels, including about 10,000 foreigners at the Varadero resort, east of Havana.

Spanish tourists Jose Luis and Avelina Alonso were spending the last day of their Cuban vacation holed up in the lobby of an Old Havana hotel.

“We arrived with Gustav and we are leaving with Ike,” said Alonso, 42, who works at Spain’s National Library in Madrid.

He said hotel management had been gracious, picking up the cost of their meals on Tuesday and asking them not to venture outside for their own safety.

“They’ll let us leave of course, but there really isn’t much to see right now,” he said.

After raking the Bahamas and worsening floods in Haiti that have killed at least 331 people, Ike made landfall on eastern Cuba as a terrifying Category 3 hurricane, then weakened Monday as it ran along the length of the Caribbean’s largest island.

Ike moved just to the south of Cuba Monday, then came back ashore Tuesday morning as a Category 1 storm southwest of Havana. It was expected to cross the island again and move out over the Gulf of Mexico in the afternoon. Forecasters said it would strengthen before hitting Texas or northern Mexico this weekend.

“When it’s out of Cuba it has the potential to become a lot stronger,” said Felix Garcia, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Officials warned that unrelated heavy rains in northern Mexico had caused more than a dozen dams to reach capacity or spill over. If Ike hits the area as expected, evacuations might be necessary.

At least 80 people were reported dead from Ike’s fury. In addition to the four deaths in Cuba, 74 people were killed in flooding in Haiti and two people died in the Dominican Republic, including an unidentified man whose body was discovered Tuesday.

Oil prices fell below $106 a barrel Tuesday in Asia on the theory that Ike might not be as disruptive to Gulf oil infrastructure as had been feared.

At 2 p.m. EDT), Ike was centered 65 miles west-southwest of Havana, and was moving to the west-northwest at 12 mph. It had maximum sustained winds near 75 mph.

On the narrow streets of Camaguey, falling utility poles crushed cars and the roaring wind transformed buildings of stone and brick into piles of rubble. Colonial columns were toppled and the ornate sculptures on the roofs of centuries-old buildings were smashed in the central Cuban city, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Delia Oliveras, 64, said it was the strongest hurricane her family has experienced. They fled to a covered patio as winds tore the roof from the living room.

“This critter was angry, really angry,” she said.

Ike destroyed 300 homes and damaged hundreds more in the eastern city of Baracoa, said Luis Torres, president of the Civil Defense Council in Guantanamo province.

Much of eastern Cuba was without electricity and phone service was spotty. The road between Santiago and Guantanamo was cut when a reservoir overflowed.

In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Lowell was projected to cut across the Baja California Peninsula on Wednesday or Thursday and emerge over the Gulf of California near the town of Loreto, popular with U.S. tourists. It had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph Tuesday morning, but was expected to weaken before hitting land.