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600,000 evacuate as Cuba braces for Hurricane Ike

Latest update : 2008-09-08

The Cuban government began mass evacuations late Sunday as Ike, labeled an "extremely dangerous" storm already responsible for at least 20 deaths in heavily flooded Haiti, looked set to barrel into the country's northeast.

Barely a week after Hurricane Gustav devastated western Cuba, the island was battening down the hatches again Sunday for another killer storm, with more than half a million people evacuating Cuba's northeast coast, officials said.

Hurricane Ike, labeled an "extremely dangerous" storm already responsible for at least 20 deaths in heavily flooded Haiti, was on course to barrel into Cuba's northeastern flank Sunday night, and authorities were leaving little to chance.

In Camaguey province 225,000 residents evacuated, 150,000 were mobilized in Santiago de Cuba and 108,000 in Holguin, while 120,000 people -- including 13,000 tourists -- took shelter in the western province of Matanzas, near the capital Havana.

Another 16,000 people evacuated their homes in Guantanamo province, site of a major US Naval base, authorities said, as Ike's outer rain bands began to lash the eastern coast.

The communist government's internationally recognized storm-preparedness was in full effect Sunday as medical equipment, food and potable water were mobilized, fuel and power generators prepared and homes secured across the country.

Vice President Jose Ramon Machado, meeting with authorities in Holguin, urged people to "carry out the evacuation in an orderly and speedy fashion," and to take steps to "avoid the loss of life."

Ike is raging into the Caribbean from the Atlantic as a Category Four storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of 215 kilometers (135 miles) per hour.

Ike "is a danger for all of Cuba's national territory," warned forecaster Jose Rubiera. Cuba's population tops 11 million.

At 1800 GMT Sunday the center of the storm was 155 kilometers (90 miles) east of Guantanamo, Cuba, the US National Hurricane Center reported.

"Eastern and central Cuba could see six to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain with isolated maximum amounts of up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) possible," the center said.

The hurricane also threatens Havana, whose population of 2.2 million has been put on alert. Residents were stocking up on food, fuel and other supplies.

In Cuba, a fragile and aging housing stock is highly vulnerable to hurricanes. Havana in particular has many colonial-era buildings, crowded with families and prone to cave-ins.

A week ago Gustav crashed across western Cuba leaving widespread destruction of homes, businesses and schools. There were no known casualities but some 140,000 homes were seriously damaged or destroyed, authorities said.

Date created : 2008-09-07