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Hurricane Ike slams Cuba, Haiti Death Toll Passes 600

Isabel Sanchez

This handout NASA satellite image shows Hurricane Ike over Cuba, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas taken on September 7, 2008. (NASA/Handout/Reuters)

Hurricane Ike raged across Cuba on Monday with torrential rain and winds as Haiti struggled with a growing humanitarian crisis after four hurricanes in four weeks.

Cuba carried out mass evacuations of residents and tourists before Ike -- the second hurricane in less than a week after Gustav -- made landfall at Punta Lucrecia on the eastern coast and then weakened slightly.

More than 800,000 people were moved away from coastal areas eastern Cuba and more than 9,000 foreign tourists were moved out of the resort of Varadero.

"In all of Cuba's history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together," lamented the head of Cuba's meteorological service, Jose Rubiera, on state television.

At 0900 GMT, the eye of storm was 40 miles (65 kilometers) southeast of Camaguey and moving west, according to the US National Hurricane Center.

Still packing winds of near 105 miles (165 kilometers) an hour with higher gusts, the US National Hurrican Center said Ike was a category two storm, down from a three on the five level Saffir-Simpson scale.

The center said a further weakening was possible while it was over land.

"It's raining heavily here and power has been cut since early at night," Alvaro Cruz, a resident of the city of Holguin, told AFP in a telephone interview.

Ike plowed across the Turks and Caicos as a powerful Category Four storm late Saturday, causing injuries and extensive damage on the British territory and tourist haven, before weakening.

The hurricane raked the Bahamas island of Great Inagua, toppling trees, blowing off roofs, causing an island-wide power failure and forcing many of its 1,000 people to seek emergency refuge.

The main concern is now in Haiti , where four storms in three weeks have killed at least 600 people and left hundreds of thousands in desperate need of food, clean water and shelter.

Officials continued aid operations in the flood-stricken town of Gonaives, devastated by flooding from Tropical Storm Hanna. Another 47 people perished in the village of Cabaret, near Port-au-Prince, in flooding caused by Ike, officials said.

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

Hundreds of bodies were found in 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.

UN 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 the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Officials said 200,000 people were without food and clean water, many for four days.

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

Massive flooding over the past week in the poorest country in the Americas has triggered a humanitarian crisis that was worsening by the day.

Pope Benedict XVI said special prayers for the stricken country.

"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.

More stormy weather hampered relief efforts Sunday. Heavy rains brought down a key bridge which severed the only viable land route to Gonaives.

The bridge gave way at the town of Mirebalais in central Haiti, forcing three trucks loaded with emergency supplies and bound for Saint-Marc, where thousands of desperate 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.

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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