SALVO, N.C. (Reuters) - Fierce Hurricane Ike weakened as it charged across the Atlantic on Friday and took aim at south Florida and the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico while Tropical Storm Hanna was set to crash ashore in the Carolinas after killing at least 136 people in Haiti.
Hanna was expected to be just short of Category 1 hurricane strength when it reaches the U.S. East Coast near the North Carolina and South Carolina border early on Saturday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Nevertheless, authorities declared states of emergency, several North Carolina beach communities were under evacuation orders, campgrounds were shut and storm alerts were issued from Georgia to New Jersey, including for Washington, D.C., as the eighth tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season pulled away from the 700 far-flung islands of the Bahamas.
Ike was far more threatening.
An extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale on Thursday, it weakened a notch to a Category 3 with top sustained winds of 185 km per hour, the Miami-based hurricane center said.
By 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), it was spinning 690 km north-northwest of the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, still days away from reaching any land. Some further weakening was possible but the hurricane center said Ike was expected to remain a “major” storm of Category 3 or higher.
Ike’s track was riddled with uncertainty.
The hurricane center’s official forecast took it through the Florida Keys island chain as a ferociously destructive Category 4 hurricane into the Gulf of Mexico, where around 4,000 offshore platforms produce a quarter of U.S. crude oil and 15 percent of the energy-hungry country’s natural gas.
Visitors were ordered to evacuate the Keys on Saturday and residents were ordered out beginning Sunday.
Some computer models took Ike near the heavily populated Miami area in southeast Florida, where up to 1.3 million people could be ordered to leave the coast.
“It’s a lot coming at us. But we must remain vigilant, focused and calm,” Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said.
A Category 4 hurricane strike on Miami would be a huge disaster because of the billions of dollars of vulnerable real estate in low-lying islands like Miami Beach and along the coast of the Florida peninsula. Power would be out for millions of people for an extended time.
Tropical Storm Josephine churned weakly in Ike’s wake across the Atlantic, boasting 65-kph winds and located around 1,160 km west of the Cape Verde Islands.
The trio of Atlantic storms followed Hurricane Gustav’s rampage through the Caribbean to Louisiana, where it came ashore on Monday west of New Orleans, largely sparing the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
The flurry underscored predictions for an unusually busy six-month hurricane season. An average season has 10 tropical storms, of which six strengthen into hurricanes with top sustained winds of at least 119 kph. Josephine was already this year’s 10th, and the statistical Sept. 10 peak of the storm season still lies ahead.
While Hanna did little damage in the Bahamas and posed only a moderate threat to the U.S. East Coast, the rainfall it triggered over impoverished Haiti killed at least 136 people.
A freighter with food and water supplied by the U.N.’s World Food Program arrived in the mud-heaped port city of Gonaives, where thousands survived by climbing onto rooftops until the flood water receded.
Hungry survivors had roamed the streets pleading for food and water from U.N. peacekeepers who have patrolled the poverty-stricken country for several years as it tries to establish a stable democracy.
Hanna was the third deadly storm to strike Haiti in less than a month. Gustav previously killed at least 75 people and Tropical Storm Fay killed more than 50.
By 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Hanna was 385 km south of Wilmington, North Carolina. It was racing north at 32 kph with top winds of 115 kph.
“Although no significant change in strength is forecast before landfall it would only take a small increase in wind speed for Hanna to become a hurricane,” the hurricane center said.
Hanna roiled the ocean off North and South Carolina with 4.2-metre waves. Sunny skies gave way to rain showers and breezy conditions on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where residents tested power generators and tied down trash cans and beach chairs.
“It’s a little breezy but not any more than a normal rainy day,” said Lisa Bell, a manager at Howard’s Pub and Restaurant on Ocracoke Island, where the pirate Blackbeard once sailed.
The storm was expected to strike at high tide, bringing a 1.5-metre storm surge likely to cause moderate coastal flooding, and heavy rains were expected far inland.