SALVO, North Carolina (Reuters) – Hurricane Ike menaced Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico as a potentially ferocious storm while Tropical Storm Hanna began a rain-swept march up the U.S. Atlantic coast after barreling ashore on Saturday in the Carolinas.
The densely populated Miami-Fort Lauderdale area in south Florida was not out of the line of fire from Ike, a powerful Category 3 hurricane, and visitors were ordered to flee the vulnerable Florida Keys island chain from Saturday.
Computer models, however, indicated Ike was increasingly likely to target Cuba as a devastating Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, presenting a severe threat to the crumbling colonial buildings of Havana.
The storm might then curve into the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of this week’s Hurricane Gustav, plowing toward an area that produces a quarter of domestic U.S. oil, and slamming ashore near New Orleans, which was swamped and traumatized by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
The deeper Ike goes into Cuba, the weaker it will be once it re-emerges over the Gulf of Mexico early next week, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Hanna, meanwhile, did not reach hurricane strength before sloshing ashore between North and South Carolina overnight.
Ike was far more threatening than Hanna as it charted a course that would take it through the Turks and Caicos islands and southeastern Bahamas toward eastern Cuba, where it was projected by the hurricane center to pummel a long stretch of coastline.
Once in the Gulf of Mexico it might find deep warm water to allow it to grow bigger and stronger, although Hurricane Gustav may have stirred up colder water from the depths before crashing into Louisiana on Monday.
By 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), Ike was located around 210 miles east of Grand Turk Island and moving toward the west-southwest at 16 mph (26 kph), the hurricane center said. Its top winds of 115 mph (185 kph) made it a weak Category 3 hurricane. Category 3 and higher storms are known as “major” hurricanes and cause the most damage. Katrina was a Category 3 when it struck near New Orleans on August 29, 2005, swamping the city and killing 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Ike’s winds were projected to peak at 132 mph (213 kph) just before landfall in Cuba in 48 hours.
South Florida, where up to 1.3 million people could be forced to evacuate, was preparing for Ike. Visitors were ordered to evacuate the Florida Keys on Saturday and residents were ordered out beginning on Sunday. Officials in Miami urged residents not to be complacent.
Storm alerts were issued for the Turks and Caicos islands, the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and would likely be issued for eastern Cuba later on Saturday, the hurricane center said.
The alerts in Haiti included the city of Gonaives, where at least 495 people died this week when it was flooded by up to 16 feet of muddy water after Hanna dumped torrential rain on the island of Hispaniola, a police commissioner said. In total, Hanna killed 529 people in Haiti.
The Bahamian government sent soldiers and emergency supplies to Mayaguana and San Salvador, southern islands left short of food and water by an overdue mail boat.
Tropical Storm Josephine, meanwhile, dissipated far out in the Atlantic, knocking out the weakest of three storms that followed Gustav’s rampage through the Caribbean to Louisiana.