Hurricane Ike weakens, 250,000 evacuated in Cuba (Lead, Changing Dateline)

September 8th, 2008 - 10:08 am ICT by IANS  

Havana, Sep 8 (DPA) Hurricane Ike weakened as it churned toward eastern Cuba, dropping to wind speeds of 195 km an hour after sweeping destruction across Haiti, killing at least 39 people.The Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic were also hit by the storm.

Heavy rains Saturday and early Sunday were blamed for the death of 39 people who drowned in the Haitian town of Cabaret, 35 km north of the capital Port-au-Prince.

That brings to nearly 200 the number of dead from hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike over the past eight days in Haiti.

In Turks and Caicos, 80 percent of the homes were reported damaged or destroyed, but the 38,000 residents of the string of 30 islands were brought to safety.

Rescue officials were bracing for higher death tolls as the rain continued across the Caribbean.

Winds were already throwing high waves and heavy rain at Cuba, where at least 250,000 citizens were evacuated. Cuba also began evacuating an estimated 13,000 international tourists from the Varadero peninsula 120 km east of Havana.

The National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida, said the storm was about 100 km north of Guantanamo, Cuba, where the US maintains its military prison for terrorist suspects.

At 0005 GMT, Ike had dropped to a category 3 level on the five-part Saffir-Simpson scale, the hurricane centre said.

The storm is expected to lose even more steam as it crosses the 1,000-km-long Caribbean island from east to west, and then heads to Florida, where evacuations have already started, first of tourists, then of residents in the Florida Keys that stretch out toward western Cuba.

US President George W. Bush declared Florida a disaster area in advance to free up emergency aid moneys and deployment of the National Guard when the storm hits.

Uneasy about ongoing tropical storms, the US space agency said it would delay two shuttle missions by two days. The Atlantis shuttle to repair the Hubble telescope is now slated for Oct 10, and the Endeavour mission to the International Space Station is slated for Nov 10.

Cuba was still recovering from Hurricane Gustav eight days ago that left 100,000 people homeless and prompted Cuba to ask the US government to suspend its decades-old embargo on exports of desperately needed material for recovery and protection of human life.

The Cuban daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde warned Sunday that Ike could be the biggest threat to the communist island in 50 years.

In Cuba, high alarm was sounded for Santiago de Cuba, Granma, HolguĂ­n, Las Tunas, Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Villa Clara, Sancti SpĂ­ritus and Cienfuegos y Matanzas.

In Haiti, hundreds of thousands in the northern town of Gonaives have been virtually cut off from relief supplies after the previous storms destroyed bridges.

But Manuela Gonzalez, head of the UN offices for humanitarian aid (OCHA) in Haiti, dismissed media reports that 500 had died.

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