Ike slams Cuba, Haiti death toll passes 600
More than 800,000 people evacuate coastal areas
Hurricane Ike raged over Cuba early Monday, pummeling the island with gale force winds and torrential rain after killing dozens in beleaguered Haiti and worsening its growing humanitarian disaster, according to AFP.
The second hurricane to strike in less than a week prompted more than 800,000 people to evacuate coastal areas of eastern Cuba. More than 9,000 foreign tourists were moved out of the resort of Varadero.
The hurricane made landfall at Punta Lucrecia late Sunday, the head of Cuba`s meteorological service, Jose Rubiera, told state television.
Packing 120-mile (195-kilometer) per hour winds, Ike is the second powerful storm in just eight days to strike Cuba, following Hurricane Gustav.
"In all of Cuba`s history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together," lamented Rubeira.
Just before dawn, the eye of storm was practically over Cabo Lucrecia on the northern coast of eastern Cuba, about 135 miles (220 kilometers) east of Camaguey and moving west, according to the US National Hurricane Center which said it was a Category Three storm on a scale going up to five.
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 to seek emergency refuges.
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.