Killer Ike Blasts Bahamas, lashes Cuba

CAMAGUEY, Cuba - Hurricane Ike roared across low-lying islands and bore down on Cuba, destroying homes, sweeping away boats and bringing more rain to waterlogged communities in Haiti, where it killed 48 more people.

Alamming into the southern Bahamas, Ike bore down on Cuba on a path that could hit Havana head-on, and hundreds of thousands evacuated to shelters or higher ground. To the north, residents of the Florida Keys fled up a narrow highway, fearful that the "extremely dangerous" hurricane could hit them Tuesday.

At least 48 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept Haiti, raising the nation's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 306. A Dominican man was crushed by a falling tree. It was too early to know of deaths on other islands where the most powerful winds were still blowing.

The center of the hurricane hit the Bahamas' Great Inagua island, where screaming winds threatened to peel plywood from the windows of a church sheltering about 50 people, shelter manager Janice McKinney said.

"All we can do is hunker down and pray," reserve police officer Henry Nixon said from different Great Inagua shelter, where about 85 people huddled around a radio.

Great Inagua has about 1,000 people and about 50,000 West Indian flamingos — the world's largest breeding colony. Both populations sought safety from the winds and driving rain — the pink flamingos gathered in mangrove thickets. Biologists worried that their unique habitat would be destroyed by the storm.

"There's a possibility that the habitat can't really be replaced, and that they can't find an equivalent spot," said Greg Butcher, bird conservation director for the National Audubon Society. "You might have a significant drop in the number of flamingos."

At 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Ike's eye moved west from Great Inagua Island in the southeastern Bahamas and weakened slightly to a Category 3 hurricane with top winds of 120 mph (195 kph). It was moving westward at 14 mph (22 kph), about 30 miles off Cuba's northern coast, and was about 75 miles (120 kms) from Guantanamo.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted Ike's eye would strike somewhere along Cuba's northern coast Sunday night and possibly hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people with many vulnerable old buildings, by Monday night.

Cuba's government said more than 224,000 people were being evacuated in the central-eastern province of Camaguey alone. Foreign tourists were pulled out from vulnerable beach resorts, workers rushed to protect coffee plants and other crops, and plans were under way to distribute food and cooking-oil to disaster areas.

"There's no fear here, but one has to prepared. It could hit us pretty hard," said Ramon Olivera, gassing up his motorcycle in Camaguey, where municipal workers were boarding up banks and restaurants and teams of employees covered sheet-glass windows with corrugated metal.

The first islands to bear Ike's fury were the Turks and Caicos, which have little natural protection from storm surges. This one was expected to be up to 18 feet (5.5 meters).

The British territory's Premier Michael Misick said more than 80 percent of the homes were damaged on two islands and people who didn't take refuge in shelters were cowering in closets and under stairwells, "just holding on for life."

"They got hit really, really bad," Misick said. "A lot of people have lost their houses, and we will have to see what we can do to accommodate them."

In South Caicos, a fishing-dependent island of 1,500 people, most homes were damaged, the airport was under water, power will be out for weeks, and at least 20 boats were swept away despite being towed ashore for safety, Minister of Natural Resources Piper Hanchell said.

Tourism chairman Wayne Garland was text-messaging with two people in Grand Turk during the height of the storm. "They were literally in their bathroom because their roofs were gone," he said. "Eventually they were rescued."

Twenty-one of the Haitian victims, still unclaimed, were stacked in a mud-caked pile in a funeral home in the coastal Haitian town of Cabaret — including two pregnant women, one with a dead girl still in her arms. More than a dozen children were in the pile. The rest of the known deaths were all in the Cabaret area, civil protection director Marie-Alta Jean Baptiste said.

Many more Haitian lives were threatened as Ike's downpours topped flooding from Hanna, Gustav and Fay. Officials said they would have to open an overflowing dam, inundating more homes and possibly causing lasting damage to key farming areas. The Mirebalais bridge collapsed in the floods, cutting off the last land route into Gonaives, where half the homes were already under water when Ike hit. The latest rains made it even more difficult for aid groups to reach desperate residents.

Heavy rains also pelted the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, where about 4,000 people were evacuated from northern coastal towns. One man was crushed by a falling tree.

Strong gusts and steady rains fell at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba, where all ferries were secured and beaches were off limits. The military said cells containing the detainees — about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida — are hurricane-proof. But the base was spared the strongest winds.

Where Ike goes after Cuba was hard to predict, leaving millions from Florida to Mexico worrying where it will strike.

"These storms have a mind of their own," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said as tourists and then residents evacuated the Keys along a narrow highway.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin prepared for the possibility of more havoc only days after an historic, life-saving evacuation of more than 2 million people from Hurricane Gustav.

"Our citizens are weary and they're tired and they have spent a lot of money evacuating," Nagin worried. "It will be very difficult to move the kind of numbers out of this city that we moved during Gustav."

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Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; Mike Melia in Nassau, Bahamas; Jonathan Katz in Gonaives, Haiti; Alexandra Olson in Cabaret, Haiti; Anita Snow in Havana, Cuba; and Danica Coto and Dave McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.


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