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Hurricane Ike weakens still a menace to Cuba
The densely populated Miami-Fort Lauderdale area in south Florida was not out of the line of fire from Ike, a Category 2 hurricane, and visitors were ordered to flee the vulnerable Florida Keys island chain from Saturday.

"We're not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination," Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez said.

Computer models indicated Ike was increasingly likely to target Cuba as a "major" Category 3 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.

"By day four, Ike is forecast to emerge back over open waters in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico," the Miami-based agency said. "Global models suggest the environment will be favorable for strengthening and the ocean should be plenty warm."

Hanna, meanwhile, did not reach hurricane strength before sloshing ashore between North and South Carolina overnight.

It was forecast to move rapidly northeast along the East Coast over the weekend, bringing heavy rains and floods to the mid-Atlantic states and southern New England. More than 3 inches of rain had already fallen in South Carolina.

"We have been incredibly fortunate," North Carolina emergency management spokeswoman Jill Lucas said. "We have had no significant damage. We have had some trees down and local flooding but nothing significant."

More than 53,000 homes were without power at one point, but the situation was improving, Lucas said.

Hanna was about 65 miles (105 km) west-southwest of Norfolk, Virginia, by 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) and sprinting to the north-northeast at 24 miles per hour (39 km per hour), the hurricane center said. Its top sustained winds had dipped to 50 mph (80 kph).

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.

Ike was located around around 150 miles (240 km) east of Grand Turk Island, and its top sustained winds had fallen to 110 mph (177 kph), making it a strong Category 2 hurricane.

Ike had been an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, but was no longer projected to regain that strength before hitting Cuba, the hurricane center said.

Instead, it was likely to strike the communist-ruled island as a Category 3 hurricane, the hurricane center said. 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 Aug. 29, 2005, swamping the city and killing 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

South Florida, where up to 1.3 million people could be forced to evacuate, was preparing for Ike. State and local officials in Miami urged residents not to be complacent.

"We are still recovering as you are aware from Tropical Storm Fay but we must and we will handle any storm that may come our way," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said.

In the low-lying Florida Keys, visitors were ordered out on Saturday and residents were told to evacuate on Sunday.

"If you choose not to leave you need to be aware that emergency services may very well not be available to you if you need it," Monroe County Sheriff Rick Roth said.

Storm alerts were issued for the Turks and Caicos islands, the Bahamas, eastern Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

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 (5 metres) 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.

"If we have heavy flooding and lose power, we could be in an uncomfortable situation," said chief councilor Earnel Brown of the island of Mayaguana.

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.


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