Monday, September 8, 2008

Ike update!

by Isabel Sanchez Sun Sep 7, 5:29 PM ET

HAVANA (AFP) - Hurricane Ike took aim at Cuba Sunday after leaving 20 people dead in Haiti, where fatalities from a succession of powerful storms in the past few weeks now tops 600.

Ike was downgraded Sunday from a Category Four hurricane to a still potentially devastating Category Three, as Cuba evacuated hundreds of thousands in a frantic bid to evade the storm's fury.

Officials in Haiti meanwhile, continued aid operations in the flood-stricken town of Gonaives, which has borne the brunt of recent flooding and seen untold misery and destruction .

Ike plowed across the low-lying Turks and Caicos overnight as a powerful Category Four storm, causing some injuries and extensive damage on the British territory and tourist haven, Bahamas radio reported.

The hurricane then raked the southeastern Bahamian island of Great Inagua, toppling trees, blowing off roofs, causing an island-wide power failure and forcing many of its one thousand residents to seek refuge in shelters, a resident told AFP by telephone.

With winds decreasing slightly to 120 miles (195 kilometers) per hour, the storm was forecast to roar ashore in eastern Cuba Sunday night as a Category Three "major hurricane" on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale.

But the immediate concern was its effect on Haiti , where a humanitarian crisis was unfolding after flooding from Ike and previous storms Hanna and Gustav left around 600 people dead and thousands in desperate need of food, clean water and shelter.

With winds near 215 kilometers (135 miles) per hour, the storm's outer bands lashed Haiti's vulnerable northwest coast with torrential rain.

Hundreds of bodies were found in flood-prone Gonaives, a town of 350,000 in northwestern Haiti, after a five-meter (16-foot) wall of water and mud engulfed much of the town. The storm followed on the heels of Hanna, last week's massive storm.

United Nations peacekeepers on Saturday evacuated several thousand residents from Gonaives, a local official said, but thousands more are still awaiting relief.

Some 650,000 Haitians have been affected by the flooding, including 300,000 children, and the task of delivering crucial aid has been complicated by dismal transport conditions, according to UNICEF.

Officials said 200,000 people have been without food and clean water, many for four days.

At least 20 people were found dead Sunday in Cabaret, 13 of them children, when a torrent of muddy water raged through the village, the region's parliamentarian said.

"What has happened here is unimaginable," deputy Pierre-Gerome Valcine told AFP from Cabaret, 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of the capital Port-Au-Prince.

"Many homes were destroyed in Cabaret, and we have seen some bodies of children in the water," added a journalist for UN radio who spent the night on the roof of his house.

Massive flooding over the past week in the poorest country in the Americas has triggered a humanitarian crisis that was worsening by the day -- and prompted prayers from Pope Benedict XVI.

"I want to remember the dear population of Haiti, greatly distressed in recent days by passing hurricanes," Benedict told pilgrims on the Italian island of Sardinia.

Continuing stormy weather hampered relief efforts Sunday, when heavy rains led to the collapse of a key bridge which severed the only viable land route to Gonaives.

The bridge gave way overnight at the town of Mirebalais in central Haiti, forcing three trucks loaded with emergency supplies and bound for Saint-Marc, where thousands of desperate flood refugees from Gonaives were crowding into shelters, to turn back, according to a World Food Programme official.

Many bridges in other areas of Haiti have also collapsed, homes have been washed away and crops ravaged.

Meanwhile, more than 600,000 people in Cuba began evacuations Sunday ahead of the Ike's arrival, including 9,210 foreign tourists who were moved out of Varadero, a tourism mecca about 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Havana.

Cuban Vice President Jose Ramon Machado, meeting with authorities in Holguin, urged people to "carry out the evacuation in an orderly and speedy fashion," and to take steps to "avoid the loss of life."

Ike was expected to eventually careen past Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and sweep toward Louisiana and the storm-battered city of New Orleans as early as Tuesday.

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