Hurricane Ike powers toward Turks and Caicos

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"Extremely dangerous" Hurricane Ike grew to fierce Category 4 strength today as it roared on an uncertain path that forced millions from the Caribbean to Florida, and Louisiana to Mexico, to wonder where it would eventually strike.

Preparations stretched more than 1,000 miles, from normally idyllic island chains through Florida and the US Gulf Coast, where people all too familiar with devastating storms were worrying again as Ike's winds picked up to 135mph.

First in Ike's path was the low-lying British territory of Turks and Caicos, already pummelled for four days this week by tropical storm Hanna.

In Haiti, authorities tried to move thousands of people into shelters ahead of Ike, while they still struggled to recover from tropical storm Hanna. Rescue workers feared Hanna's death toll could rise into the hundreds in the flooded city of Gonaives and that aid efforts could be further impeded as Ike approached.

Hanna did not pack the same punch while racing up the US Eastern seaboard, but did cause one death in a traffic accident on the Interstate 95 highway in Maryland.

It also brought fits of wind and pelting rain on its trek toward New England. But it did not linger long enough to cause widespread damage, although more than 100,000 people lost power at some point.

But Ike is another matter.

Tens of millions of people in countries spread over a swathe of the hurricane zone monitored the trajectory of a storm that had a huge footprint, with tropical storm-force winds stretching up to 140 miles from its eye.

At 4am BST, Ike's large eye was near or hovering over the Turks and Caicos.

Ike muscled up from a Category 3 to a Category 4 storm earlier, with some gusts even higher than maximum sustained winds of 135mph. It was moving towards the south west, a course it was expected to continue today before gradually turning to the west toward the Gulf.

Tourists were urged to leave the Bahamas, and authorities in the Dominican Republic began evacuating dozens of families who live on the banks of a river that could flood with waters from two already overfilled dams.

In Cuba, the island's top meteorologist warned Ike was a "true danger" and government officials began the early phases of emergency preparations. But no alarm was evident in Havana, where the US football team was set to play Cuba in a World Cup qualifying match.

In Louisiana, still recovering from last week's Hurricane Gustav, governor Bobby Jindal set up a task force to prepare for the possibility of a new round of havoc.

"We're not hoping for another strike, another storm, but we're ready," he said.

Even as Gustav evacuees headed home, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said officials were anxiously monitoring Ike's projected path towards the Gulf.

"Our citizens are weary and they're tired and they have spent a lot of money evacuating .. from Gustav," he said. He added that if Ike were to threaten, "my expectations this time is, it will be very difficult to move the kind of numbers out of this city that we moved during Gustav".

In Florida, batteries, water and petrol cans became major commodities, as nearly the entire state appeared within the cone of areas that might be hit.

Visitors to the Florida Keys were under a mandatory evacuation order yesterday and a light but steady stream of traffic rolled out of Key West ahead of the storm.

Key West was last seriously affected by a hurricane in 2005, when Category 3 Wilma sped past. The town escaped widespread wind damage, but a storm surge flooded hundreds of homes and some businesses.

With the latest storm still hundreds of miles and days away from the peninsula, Florida governor Charlie Crist touched on the uncertainty in meetings with mayors and emergency officials.

"These storms have a mind of their own," he said. "There are no rules, so what we have to do is be prepared, be smart, vigilant and alert."