After wreaking havoc in the Caribbean last week, Hurricane Ike is now threatening New Orleans, the city swamped in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Gustav narrowly missed the low-lying city protected by floodwalls and levees.
Ike tore roofs off houses when it hit Britain's Turks and Caicos Islands as a ferocious Category 4 hurricane, and floods triggered by its torrential rains were blamed for at least 61 deaths in Haiti, where Tropical Storm Hanna killed 500 last week.
The concern now is that it could re-strengthen over warm water further disrupting energy output from the Gulf, which produces a quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas. Much of that production was first shut down before Hurricane Gustav pounded the region last week.
Before weakening to a Category 2 storm with 100 mph winds Cuba's state-run television showed huge waves slamming into the sea wall and surging as high as nearby five-story apartment buildings. The storm stripped ripening coffee from trees in the east, where 85 percent of Cuba's coffee is grown, and virtually destroyed the island’s sugar plantations.
Just to the north of Cuba, schools, hospitals and government offices were closed in the Florida Keys. Although the islands were not expected to take a direct hit, tourists were evacuated as a precaution. Residents had also been ordered out but that measure was allowed to expire as Ike took a more southerly route.
Ike is expected to strengthen to a Category 3 with sustained winds above 110 mph when it approaches the U.S. Gulf Coast this weekend. Its likeliest destination was east Texas, but several computer models take it ashore in Louisiana west of New Orleans, not far from where Gustav hit last week.