HAVANA (AFP) — Hurricane Ike assaulted Cuba on Monday with monster waves and torrential rains after leaving 61 people dead in Haiti, where a series of vicious storms has triggered a humanitarian crisis.
Nearly two million of Cuba's 11 million population were being evacuated and all 14 provinces were on maximum alert as the storm hammered its way across the southern end of the Caribbean island.
The storm drove seven-meter (23-foot) waves onto Cuba's eastern coastline as it came ashore late Sunday Monday, destroying a yet to-be-counted number of homes.
Cuban authorities said seven people had been injured but none killed in the storm.
"I'm 59, I have seen a lot of hurricanes, but I have never seen one that caused so much destruction," an unnamed resident of Camaguey told Cuban television by phone.
In the eastern province of Holguin, Cuban television called the situation "horrendous," with electric poles knocked flat on roads, trees blown down and roofs shredded.
After crossing the island Ike turned onto a track just offshore and parallel to Cuba's south coast, putting it on a path to plow into the Isle of Youth and cross the country a second time in western Pinar del Rio province, where Hurricane Gustav flattened villages and destroyed crops just over one week ago.
At 2100 GMT the eye of the storm was over water 70 kilometers (45 miles) southeast of Cienfuegos, Cuba and on a west-northwest path to pass between the Cuban mainland and the Isle of Youth.
The storm eased to a category one hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour after it crossed Cuba's mainland.
But the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said it could strengthen again while over water and would likely intensify once it passes western Cuba and heads into the Gulf of Mexico toward the US coastline late Tuesday.
Cuba carried out mass evacuations of residents and tourists as Ike made landfall Sunday night at Cabo Lucrecia in the east, pounding buildings along the coast with huge waves and flooding coastal villages.
In eastern Baracoa Ike sent waves spraying the tops of five-storey buildings, and hundreds of homes were destroyed, many of them swept away by raging currents.
"I have never seen anything like this," said one Baracoa resident of 57 years.
More than 1.8 million people were moved away from coastal areas in eastern and central Cuba and more than 9,000 foreign tourists were evacuated from the resort of Varadero east of Havana, officials said.
Ike's devastation followed widespread destruction wrought by Hurricane Gustav which charged into western Cuba August 30 and destroyed or severely damaged 140,000 homes and buildings.
"In all of Cuba's history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together," said the head of Cuba's meteorological service, Jose Rubiera, on state television.
"There is widespread damage" of homes, businesses, and the agriculture sector, civil defense department chief Colonel Jose Betancourt said.
Ike is forecast to track into the Gulf of Mexico sometime Tuesday and train its sights on the US Gulf Coast, where the bulk of US oil refineries are located.
Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell said Monday it had already evacuated 150 workers and would move its remaining 500 employees in the Gulf by Wednesday.
The New York oil futures contract edged up 11 cents to 106.34 by the closing bell Monday.
Ike plowed across the Turks and Caicos and southern Bahamas Saturday and Sunday as a category four storm, causing extensive damage but no reported deaths.
Worst-affected is Haiti , where four storms in three weeks have killed more than 600 people and left hundreds of thousands desperate for food, clean water and shelter.
Officials continued aid operations in the stricken town of Gonaives, where hundreds died in devastating floods from Tropical Storm Hanna, but stormy weather and bridge collapses hampered relief efforts.
As thousands awaited relief, the US Navy deployed a helicopter carrier off Haiti's coast to help with relief efforts.
The USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship loaded with relief supplies, will help move cargo and equipment between Port-au-Prince and Gonaives, Saint-Marc and other stricken areas, the military said.
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