Published: 2008-09-06 17:29:00
Updated: 2008-09-07 10:16:56
Posted September 6, 2008 5:29 p.m. EDT
Updated September 7, 2008 10:16 a.m. EDT
KEY WEST, Fla. — "Extremely dangerous" Hurricane Ike grew to fierce Category 4 strength Saturday as it roared on an uncertain path that forced millions from the Caribbean to Florida, and Louisiana to Mexico, to nervously wonder where it would eventually strike.
Preparations stretched more than 1,000 miles as the massive, 135-mph storm took a southwesterly shift that could send it over Cuba near the Florida Keys sometime Monday before heading into the warm open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And once again, a possible target was New Orleans and the already storm-weary U.S. Gulf Coast.
"These storms have a mind of their own," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said after a meeting with mayors and emergency officials. "There are no rules, so what we have to do is be prepared, be smart, vigilant and alert."
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Ike's large eye punched the low-lying British territory of Turks and Caicos, already pummeled for four days last week by Tropical Storm Hanna.
At the airport in Providenciales hours before Ike's approach, Patrick Munroe had hoped to catch a departing flight, but was turned away, even before the airport closed.
"It looks really, really serious," he said. "And I think it's going to be devastating."
In Haiti, authorities tried to move thousands of people into shelters ahead of Ike, still struggling to recover from Hanna. Rescue workers feared Hanna's death toll could rise into the hundreds in the flooded city of Gonaives if Ike dumped more rain from outer storm bands as the storm rumbled nearby.
Hanna did not pack the same punch Saturday while racing up the U.S. Eastern seaboard, but it did cause one traffic accident fatality on Interstate 95 in Maryland. It also brought wind and pelting rain, with some sporadic flooding, all along its trek into New England.
In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Lowell formed late Saturday some 265 miles off Mexico's southwest coast and could become a hurricane by Monday, the hurricane center said. Forecasters said Lowell could unleash several inches of rain on parts of Mexico before drifting away from its coast.
Ike is another matter.
Tens of millions of people in countries spread over a swath of the hurricane zone monitored the trajectory of a storm that had a huge footprint, with tropical storm-force winds stretching up to 140 miles from its eye.
At 8 a.m. EDT Sunday, Ike's large eye was just east of Great Inagua Island in the southeastern Bahamas, with maximum sustained winds of 135 mph. It was moving west-southwest at 14 mph and was expected to remain a major hurricane as it approaches eastern Cuba.
Ike muscled up from a Category 3 to a Category 4 storm Saturday, with some gusts even higher than maximum sustained winds of 135 mph. It was moving toward the southwest at about 15 mph, a course it was expected to continue Sunday before gradually turning to the west toward the Gulf.
The storm's outer bands of lashing winds and rains were expected to begin affecting the Southeastern Bahamas overnight and Cuba's government put up hurricane warnings across several provinces.
"It's a very dangerous storm," hurricane center meteorologist Colin McAdie told The Associated Press. "There's going to be some ups and downs, but we expect it to remain a major hurricane over the next couple days."
Tourists were urged to leave the Bahamas, and authorities in the Dominican Republic began evacuating dozens of families from river banks that could flood because of two already overfilled dams.
In Louisiana, still recovering from last week's Hurricane Gustav, Gov. Bobby Jindal set up a task force to prepare for the possibility of more havoc.
"We're not hoping for another strike, another storm, but we're ready," he said.
Even as Gustav evacuees headed home, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said officials were anxiously monitoring Ike on a projected path toward the Gulf.
"Our citizens are weary and they're tired and they have spent a lot of money evacuating .. from Gustav," he said. He added that if Ike were to threaten, "my expectations this time is, it will be very difficult to move the kind of numbers out of this city that we moved during Gustav."
In Florida, batteries, water and gas cans became major commodities, as nearly the entire state appeared within the cone of areas that might be hit.
Visitors to the Florida Keys were under a mandatory evacuation order Saturday and a light but steady stream of traffic rolled out of Key West. In typical fashion, laid-back residents and business owners kept their shops, bars and restaurants open. But unique was the worry, still nearly four days ahead of potential landfall.
Jesse Damian hammered plywood over windows at The Bike Shop.
"The owners are usually like all the people who wait until the last minute around here," he said. "But this one's looking pretty bad."
Key West was last seriously affected by a hurricane in 2005, when Category 3 Wilma sped past. The town escaped widespread wind damage, but a storm surge flooded hundreds of homes.