A weakened Hurricane Ike swept toward western Cuba early today after it left a trail of destruction and killed four people on the eastern end of the island, and is expected to strengthen as it aims for the Gulf of Mexico oil fields.
With top sustained winds of 80 miles per hour, Ike had fallen to a Category 1 storm after it blew into the Caribbean Sea and hugged the Cuban coast. The storm was moving west-northwest at 5am EDT (0900) at 13 mph and about 85 miles southeast of Havana.
State-run Cuban media reported widespread damage throughout the eastern provinces and showed videos of toppled trees, destroyed homes, downed power lines and flooded towns, inundated by up to 10 inches of rain, swollen rivers and, along the coast, a surging sea.
Cuban television said four people died in the storm, including two men who were electrocuted when they tried to take down an antenna that fell into an electric line, a woman killed when her house collapsed and a man crushed when a tree blew over onto his home. Hurricane deaths are rare in Cuba where the government conducts mass evacuations.
The Cuban weather service said Ike was unlikely to regain strength before coming ashore unless it moved away from land.
Forecasts called for Ike to take a path similar to that of Hurricane Gustav, which devastated the Isle of Youth and the western province of Pinar del Rio with 150 mph winds and two days later hit Louisiana on the US Gulf Coast.
It was expected to emerge into the Gulf today and regain strength on a path through the heart of the offshore oil fields that produce a quarter of US oil and 15 per cent of its natural gas.
Energy companies, which shut down most Gulf oil and gas production during Gustav, delayed restarting the flow because of Ike, a decision that was likely to pare inventories in coming weeks. Shell Oil Co (RDSa.L) and other energy companies said they were evacuating workers from offshore rigs.
Forecasters said isolated tornadoes might pop up over the Florida Keys and extreme South Florida.
Cuba evacuated 1.8 million people ahead of Ike.
The storm was expected to take a toll on the economy of Cuba, still reeling from the destruction of more than 100,000 homes by Gustav.
As it passed over the eastern provinces, Ike swept through the main growing regions for sugar and coffee and shut down Cuba's nickel mines and processing plants.
People in the stricken area reported that Ike stripped ripening beans from coffee bushes and levelled fields of sugar cane as it pounded the area for hours.
The Cuban government promised to provide aid quickly to storm victims, but Eduardo Hernandez, in Holguin 460 miles from the Cuban capital, said something more may be needed.
"We are going to have to call on our African gods to recover from this," he said.
Across the Florida Straits, 90 miles to the north, schools, hospitals and government offices were closed in the Florida Keys, a 110-mile island chain connected by a single road.
The islands were not expected to take a direct hit, but tourists were evacuated. Residents had also been ordered out but that measure was allowed to expire as Ike took a more southerly route.Reuse content