MIAMI – Hurricane Ike ripped through central Cuba on Monday, toppling colonial landmarks and forcing the evacuation of nearly 1 million people – with more likely to be displaced as the powerful storm plowed toward populous Havana.
Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro proclaimed his country on “combat alert” against the third massive storm to hit the island in as many weeks and what he portrayed as a heartless double standard that blocks U.S. humanitarian aid.
The extent of Ike’s damage elsewhere in the Caribbean emerged Monday, a day after it ravaged Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas as a Category 4 hurricane with winds upward of 135 mph and triggered more flooding in Haiti, where the death toll from the series of storms was reported to exceed 1,000.
The U.S. Navy sent its amphibious assault ship Kearsage to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to assist in ferrying disaster relief to victims cut off by collapsed bridges and flooded towns. In contrast to the $100,000 in assistance offered to Cuba, Washington upped its aid to Haitian storm victims to $10 million.
In important farming and mining areas near Camaguey, Cuba, news agencies reported that buildings had collapsed under the ferocious winds, including colonial columns that graced the UNESCO-designated historical site.
Exiting into the Caribbean Sea at midday, Ike slowed to about 12 mph and the National Hurricane Center in Miami reported its sustained winds had subsided to about 80 mph. But the center warned that it was likely to regain intensity overnight as it moved across the warm waters off Cuba’s southern coast.
Forecasters feared Ike might hit Havana today with winds exceeding 100 mph.
“It will have a very powerful fuel there,” Jose Rubiera, head of Cuba’s National Meteorological Institute, said on state television after Ike crossed into the shallow waters of the Gulf of Ana Maria.
Evacuations are mandatory in Cuba, a policy the country’s Communist rulers say has prevented deaths and injury.
Raul Castro, the former defense minister who took over for his older brother as president in February, spent Monday directing the massive evacuation and public security operations from Havana, the Communist Party daily Granma reported.
Fidel Castro, 82, and convalescing at a secret location, issued one of his periodic “reflections,” praising Cuba’s civil defense efforts and accusing the U.S. government of reveling in Cuba’s sorrows from Ike and the storms that preceded it, Gustav and Hanna.