Powerful Hurricane Ike weakened slightly as it moved across the Atlantic toward the Bahamas and the U.S. on Thursday, while Tropical Storm Hanna’s death toll from floods in Haiti grew to 136.
Campgrounds were closed and some evacuations began on North Carolina’s Outer Banks as Hanna churned east of the far-flung Bahamian chain of 700 islands on a path toward the southeastern U.S. states Saturday.
Ike posed no immediate threat to land and it was too early to say if it would threaten Caribbean islands, the U.S. East Coast or the U.S. oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile Tropical Storm Josephine churned in Ike’s wake across the Atlantic. It has weakened to a 45-mph [72 km/hr] storm as it moved 590 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands.
The trio of Atlantic storms followed Hurricane Gustav’s rampage through the Caribbean to the Louisiana coast, where it slammed ashore on Monday west of New Orleans, largely sparing the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
The flurry was a clear signal this six-month hurricane season was on track to be a ferociously busy one, though not like record-busting 2005 when 28 tropical storms, including Katrina, rolled across the Atlantic and Caribbean.
HAITI TOLL RISES
In the Haitian port city of Gonaives, residents roamed the streets hunting for food as floodwaters that had trapped hundreds on rooftops receded, leaving behind deep piles of mud and the carcasses of goats, pigs and dogs.
Crowds of people knocked on the windows of passing cars, pleading for food and water. “I have nothing to eat,” resident Jean Pierre Moreau said. “No food, no water and no one seems to be able to help.”
At least 136 people had died in floods and mudslides triggered by Hanna, many of them in the Gonaives area, Haiti’s civil protection office said.
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.
President Rene Preval called the situation “catastrophic,” comparing it to floods from Tropical Storm Jeanne in September 2004 that killed more than 3,000 people around Gonaives.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescued eight crewmen from a freighter that ran aground near the Turks and Caicos Islands south of the Bahamas three days ago. Hanna prevented them from attempting to get the crew off the ship earlier.
Hanna weakened slightly Thursday. Its top sustained winds were at 65 mph [104 km/hr] and the U.S. National Hurricane Center expected it to remain below the hurricane threshold of 74 mph [118 km/hr] through landfall around the South Carolina-North Carolina border early Saturday.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency and his South Carolina counterpart, Mark Sanford, advised people in two northern coastal counties to evacuate. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine also declared a state of emergency.
On North Carolina’s fragile Outer Banks, beach goers took advantage of sunny skies and light winds, but the National Park Service closed campgrounds on Ocracoke and Hatteras islands and a mandatory evacuation of isolated Cape Lookout National Seashore was under way.
Hanna’s threat to the Bahamas ebbed as the storm churned to the east. “It’s been a bit of a damp squib (dud),” said Kathleen Ralph, a resident of Marsh Harbour, a tourist destination virtually shut down by the storm. “We’re now more concerned about Hurricane Ike, which looks stronger.”
In Nassau, the Bahamian capital, some shops along Bay Street, the main tourist area, boarded up, and jewelry and liquor stores pulled down metal shutters, less out of concern about Hanna than powerful Ike, which was expected to be in the northern Bahamas by Tuesday as a “major” Category 3 hurricane.
Ike’s top sustained winds weakened to 135 mph [216 km/hr] by 5 p.m. EDT as it moved across the Atlantic 505 miles north-northeast of the Leeward Islands, but it remained an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of storm intensity.
The Miami-based hurricane center said it was too early to say where Ike might go. But the storm has drawn the attention of energy companies running the 4,000 offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico which provide the United States with a quarter of its crude oil and 15 percent of its natural gas.
Although Florida’s Kennedy Space Center appeared to be in Ike’s long-range target, NASA hauled the space shuttle Atlantis to its seaside launch pad on Thursday for its mission to the Hubble Space Telescope next month.
(Additional reporting by John Marquis in Nassau; Writing by Jim Loney; editing by Todd Eastham)
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