Hurricane Ike heads for western Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Ike blew through the warm Caribbean Sea toward western Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico oilfields on Monday after ripping the eastern side of the island with high winds and torrential rains that left a broad path of destruction.

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 (25 cm) of rain, swollen rivers and, along the coast, storm surge.

The Cuban weather service said Ike, which weakened on Monday to a Category 1 storm with 80-mile-per-hour (130-km-per-hour) winds, could regain strength over the 89-degree Fahrenheit (32-Celsius) waters of the Caribbean, but how much would depend on whether it stayed close to the coast or took a more westerly course into the open sea.

“It will have a very powerful fuel there,” warned chief forecaster Jose Rubiera, referring to the warm sea.

Forecasts called for Ike to brush along the southern Cuban coast heading northwest on a path similar to that of Hurricane Gustav, which devastated the Isle of Youth and the western province of Pinar del Rio and two days later hit Louisiana on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

It was expected to emerge into the Gulf on Tuesday or Wednesday and regain strength on a path through the heart of the offshore oil fields that produce a quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas.

Energy companies, which shut down most Gulf oil and gas production during Gustav, delayed restarting the flow because of Ike, which was likely to pare inventories in coming weeks. Shell Oil Co and other energy companies said they were evacuating workers from offshore rigs.

The U.S. National Hurricane Centre said the storm was pointed toward eastern Texas, but New Orleans, the city swamped in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage along the U.S. Gulf Coast, remained a possible target.

The low-lying city protected by floodwalls and levees was barely missed by Gustav.

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Ike tore roofs off houses when it hit Britain’s Turks and Caicos Islands as a ferocious Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, and floods triggered by its torrential rains were blamed for at least 61 deaths in Haiti, where Tropical Storm Hanna killed 500 last week.

The U.S. Navy ship Kearsarge arrived near Haiti on Monday with eight helicopters and three landing craft to help deliver relief supplies, the U.S. military said.

Cuba evacuated 1.5 million people ahead of Ike, and so far no deaths had been reported.

But 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, it 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 with high winds and heavy rains for hours.

Sugar prices rose as Ike moved across the key Caribbean growing region.

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Production of nickel, the island’s top export, was stopped as the storm approached on Sunday and remained closed on Monday. Nickel production is located in the state of Holguin, where Ike made landfall and which bore the full brunt of the storm.

“Here it keeps raining and there are still strong wind gusts. It doesn’t seem like Ike wants to leave, and now the river is overflowing,” said Evelio Hernandez, a farmer in Camaguey, 330 miles (534 km) southeast of Havana. “In the end, it’s all bad news.”

“We are going to have to call on our African gods to recover from this,” Eduardo Hernandez said from Holguin, 460 miles (743 km) from the Cuban capital.

At least 6,000 people were evacuated on Monday from low-lying areas and crumbling buildings in and around Havana, which was near the projected path for Ike.

“Attention Havana, attention Havana. Havana is on hurricane alert. All residents must strictly follow the instructions of the civil defence,” local radio said repeatedly.

Across the Florida Straits, 90 miles (144 km) to the north, schools, hospitals and government offices were closed in the Florida Keys, a 110-mile (177-km) 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.

Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Rosa Tania Valdes, Marc Frank and Esteban Israel in Havana, Erwin Seba in Houston, Richard Valdmanis in New York; Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech