'Extremely dangerous' Ike pounds Turks and Caicos

Sunday, September 7th 2008, 5:43 am
By: News 9

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Hurricane Ike's furious winds, sea surge and intense rains pummeled the Turks and Caicos Islands early Sunday.

Ike struck the islands late Saturday as a Category 4 storm with winds near 135 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

As of 5 a.m., the storm was centered about 65 miles (105 km) east of Great Inagua Island.

The outer bands of the storm brought fierce, palm-bending winds to the British crown colony that had already been pummeled this week for four days by Tropical Storm Hanna.

"People are losing roofs by the second," said Audley Astwood, a reporter at a radio station in Grand Turk said. "Close to 50 percent of the homes on Grand Turk have been destroyed or lost roofs."

In fact, Astwood said his own home lost its roof and his family was huddled in a bathroom.

Power was out over the whole island of Grand Turk, he said.

Astwood said it was the strongest hurricane to hit the eight-island chain in his lifetime. He said it rivals Hurricane Donna's ferocity in 1960.

Desiree Adams and 11 family members could hear the storm's powerful winds howling through the storm shutters of her Grand Turk home. The power was out, but they had water and food and battery-powered lanterns if necessary.

"We're all just laying down looking up at the dark ceiling and talking," Adams, a personal adviser to the island chain's chief minister for tourism issues, told the Associated Press by cell phone.

In the hurricane center's 5 a.m. ET advisory, forecasters said the "extremely dangerous" storm was moving west-southwest near 15 mph (24 kph). Most tourists and residents fled the Caribbean islands ahead of the powerful hurricane.

The British government arranged extra flights to move visitors to Turks and Caicos out of harm's way before the Providenciales airport was forced to close about noon.

Rainfall of 4 to 8 inches, and up to 12 inches in some regions, is expected over Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas.

Ike was expected to move near the southeastern Bahamas Sunday morning and move toward eastern Cuba later on Sunday and early Monday.

The storm should pass close enough to Haiti on its way to Cuba to aggravate flooding caused three storms -- Hanna, Gustav and Fay -- which have passed by in recent weeks, killing hundreds.

The hurricane center said Hispaniola, the island that includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic, could see 6 to 12 inches of rain with isolated maximum amounts of up to 20 inches possible.

"These rains will likely cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides over mountainous terrain," according to the hurricane center.

Cubans were being warned that Ike was a "true danger," and government officials began emergency preparations.

On Saturday, Cuban officials asked the U.S. to loosen the "ruthless and cruel" decades-old trade embargo on the Communist-ruled island in the wake of deadly flooding caused by powerful storms. Cuba was also hit hard by Hurricane Gustav.

"If the government of the United States is really willing to cooperate with the Cuban people in face of the tragedy of the hurricane, it is requested to allow the sale to Cuba of those materials considered indispensable and to suspend the restrictions that prevent U.S. companies from offering private commercial credits to our country for the purchase of food in the United States," said the statement from the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"In all truth, the only correct and ethical action ... would be to eliminate totally and permanently the ruthless and cruel economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed against our Motherland for almost half a century," the statement said.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement Friday, after government officials had offered to help Cuban flood victims.

"We do not believe that at this time it is necessary to loosen the restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba to accomplish the objective of aiding the hurricane victims," the statement said.

Meanwhile, visitors to the Florida Keys were told Saturday to pack up and leave.

"We're sorry to interrupt their vacations, but we need visitors to leave the Keys to ensure their safety," said Keys Mayor Mario Di Gennaro, who also chairs the islands' Tourism Council. "We do hope they will return and understand our concerns for their well-being."

Florida emergency management officials began evacuating visitors from Key West and the rest of the Keys on Saturday and planned to help residents leave Sunday.

Ike is expected to start turning toward the northwest Monday, a path that would take the storm over the Keys and into the southeast Gulf of Mexico.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist acknowledged that storm tracks are unpredictable, but he said Ike could be a serious threat by Tuesday.

"We continue to watch with much concern the track of Hurricane Ike," Crist said Saturday. "Ike has grown rapidly into a dangerous storm that continues to move ... toward Florida."

Forecasters expect Ike to remain strong as it passes over warm water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tracking maps indicate that Ike could hit anywhere from Texas to Alabama by Thursday.