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600,000 evacuate as Cuba braces for Hurricane Ike

A man crosses a flooded street in Baracoa, eastern Cuba on the impending arrival of Hurricane Ike, on September 7, 2008. Ike was downgraded Sunday from a Category Four hurricane to a still potentially devastating Category Three, as Cuba evacuated hundreds of thousands in a frantic bid to evade the storm's fury. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Havana (AFP) Sept 7, 2008
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.

earlier related report
Rice: US not ready to lift Cuba trade embargo despite storm
The United States is not prepared to lift its trade embargo against Cuba, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday, after Havana urged Washington to ease restrictions in the wake of a devastating hurricane.

"I don't think in the context that we see now that the lifting of the embargo would be wise," Rice told reporters during a visit to Morocco.

On Saturday Cuba's Foreign Ministry sought an easing of the decades-old embargo to allow US firms to open private lines of credit for food imports to the Caribbean island reeling from Hurricane Gustav, and as another major storm loomed.

"If the US government has the real will to cooperate with the Cuban people after the hurricane tragedy, it is requested that they... suspend restrictions that block US companies from offering private commercial credit" that would allow Cuba to buy food from the United States, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The United States was also urged to "permit the sale to Cuba of emergency supplies," according to the statement, which did not mention the US offer of 100,000 dollars in aid made earlier this week to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

Gustav, a powerful Category Four hurricane, slammed into western Cuba August 30, causing major flooding and destroying or seriously damaging more than 140,000 homes and buildings.

Meanwhile another dangerous Category Four storm, Hurricane Ike, appears poised to slam the island of more than 11 million from the east on Sunday or Monday.

In a column in Cuban state media on Wednesday, ailing former president Fidel Castro said Gustav hit his country like a nuclear blast, estimating it would take three to four billion dollars to cope with the emergency.

Castro's younger brother Raul became president in a historic handover of power in February, but the administration of US President George W. Bush has maintained its tough line against Havana.

The US decision to contact Havana about aid was in keeping with past moves to offer disaster relief and does not mark a shift in US government policy toward isolating the communist island nation, officials had said in Washington.

Following earlier hurricane damage, since 2000 the US government has allowed cash-and-carry trade, with restrictions, which allows Cuba to purchase food and medicine from the United States, as long as they are purchased in cash, despite the full US economic embargo in place since 1962.

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13 dead or missing in Philippines landslide: officials
Maco, Philippines (AFP) Sept 6, 2008
Six people were killed and at least seven others were missing after a landslide triggered by heavy rains buried houses in the southern Philippines, officials said Saturday.

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