HAVANA, September 9 – Hurricane Ike continued the batter Cuba more than 24 hours after making landfall leaving at least four people dead as authorities announced plans to evacuate some 170,000 people from vulnerable parts of Havana.
Officials said the massive storm, which spared the capital city as it traversed eastern parts of the island Monday, likely would batter Havana on Tuesday, as well as western sections of the island.
Authorities here have mounted a massive civil defence operation, with a million people evacuated to safer buildings and to areas away from the surging ocean tides.
The hurricane killed three men and a woman in Cuba, a relatively rare event in a country which prides itself on preparedness in facing down the hurricane season’s tempests.
After killing 61 people in Haiti, Ike caused severe damage to housing and knocked out communications in its first pass over Cuba, but stayed clear of the capital Havana and its vulnerable population of 2.2 million.
"There is substantial damage in housing, and we are evaluating the farm sector," said Colonel Jose capitalfmnewncourt of the civil defence department.
The storm drove seven-meter (23-foot) waves onto Cuba’s eastern coastline as it came ashore late Sunday, and destroyed a unknown number of homes as it swept across Camaguey province.
"I’m 59, I have seen a lot of hurricanes, but I have never seen one that caused so much destruction," an unnamed resident of Camaguey told Cuban television by phone.
The hurricane diminished to a category one storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale after it crossed Cuba, blowing maximum sustained winds of 130 kilometres (80 miles) per hour and moving offshore in a west-northwest direction toward Pinar del Rio province.
But the US National Hurricane Centre warned Monday that it could strengthen again as it heads into the Gulf of Mexico on an expected track toward the coast of Texas.
Nearly two million of Cuba’s 11 million population were evacuated as Ike bore down on the eastern end of the Caribbean island Sunday.
In addition to the fatalities, Cuban authorities said seven people had been injured as Ike crossed from east to west as a category two storm.
In Holguin province, electric poles were knocked flat on roads, trees blown down and roofs shredded, according to television reports.
Cuban television reported that both President Raul Castro and his brother former president Fidel Castro were monitoring the storm "minute by minute," with invalid Fidel, 82, "up to date with everything that is happening," a television announcer said.
After crossing the island, Ike turned onto an offshore track parallel to Cuba’s south coast, putting it on a path to plough by the Isle of Youth and cross the country a second time in western Pinar del Rio province. That was where Hurricane Gustav flattened villages and destroyed crops just over a week ago.
At 0000 GMT the eye of the storm was 55 kilometres (35 miles) south-southeast of Cienfuegos.
Cuba carried out mass evacuations of residents and tourists as Ike made landfall Sunday night at Cabo Lucrecia in the east, pounding buildings along the coast with huge waves and flooding coastal villages.
In Baracoa, Ike sent waves spraying the tops of five-story buildings, and hundreds of homes were destroyed, many of them swept away by raging currents.
"I have never seen anything like this," said one 57-year-old Baracoa resident.
Ike’s devastation followed widespread destruction wrought by Hurricane Gustav, which charged into western Cuba August 30 and destroyed or severely damaged 140,000 homes and buildings.
"In all of Cuba’s history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together," said the head of Cuba’s meteorological service, Jose Rubiera, on state television.
Ike is forecast to track into the Gulf of Mexico sometime Tuesday and train its sights on the north-western US Gulf Coast, where the bulk of US oil refineries are located.
Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell said Monday it had already evacuated 150 workers and would move its remaining 500 employees in the Gulf by Wednesday.
Ike ploughed across the Turks and Caicos and southern Bahamas Saturday and Sunday as a category four storm, causing extensive damage but no reported deaths.
Worst-affected was Haiti, where four storms in three weeks have killed more than 600 people and left hundreds of thousands desperate for food, clean water and shelter.
Officials continued aid operations in the stricken town of Gonaives, where hundreds died in devastating floods from Tropical Storm Hanna, but stormy weather and bridge collapses hampered relief efforts.
As thousands awaited relief, the US Navy deployed a helicopter carrier off Haiti’s coast to help with relief efforts.
The USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship loaded with relief supplies, will help move cargo and equipment between Port-au-Prince and Gonaives, Saint-Marc and other stricken areas, the military said.