Royal Navy heads for Turks and Caicos Islands with aid

Royal Navy ships were heading to the Turks and Caicos Islands with emergency aid last night after the British territory was savaged by the 135 mph Hurricane Ike, adding to a huge humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Caribbean.

The frigate Iron Duke and Wave Ruler, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, are expected to reach the island chain in the next couple of days, arriving on the tail of the Category 4 storm that was also threatening the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba last night.

Michael Misick, the Turks and Caicos Premier, said that his people had been “just holding on for life” as Ike’s fearsome eye wall, where the winds are the most powerful, bore down on Grand Turk island, home to 3,000 people. He said, “They got hit really, really bad.”

Ina Bluemel, a British Red Cross worker on the islands, said that as many as 95 percent of the buildings on Grand Turk had been “severely damaged, flattened, demolished.” She told The Times from Providenciales island last night, “We had very regular contact with Grand Turk till very late last night when the connection broke. We had reports of houses collapsing; the hospital having major damage. The reports we were getting over mobile phones and radios were more devastating by the minute.”

Clive Evans, her colleague, said, “When the wind hits, it’s like the roars of lions.”

It was the second hurricane to batter the islands in six days; the Government was still assessing the impact of Hanna, which struck last Monday as a lesser Category 1 hurricane, when Ike made its strike early yesterday. Authorities and relief agencies had only a 24-hour window between local airports reopening after Hanna and closing again ahead of Ike to get disaster supplies in.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida forecast that Ike would start to pummel Cuba late last night local time after brushing past the northern coast of Haiti, where 650,000 people have been made homeless by the effects of tropical storms Fay and Hanna, and Hurricane Gustav in the past two weeks.

“What I saw in this city today is close to hell on earth,” said Hedi Annabi, a United Nations envoy, as he toured the flooded city of Gonaïves in northwest Haiti at the weekend.

Crowds of children chased UN food trucks shouting “Hungry, hungry” and families climbed on to rooftops and floating cars to escape floodwaters.

Police in Gonaïves said that initial reports that 500 corpses had been found floating in the streets were untrue, though the confirmed death toll from the previous storms was 252. The British Red Cross and other agencies have launched emergency appeals to support operations throughout the affected region.

In Cuba, residents and tourists were being evacuated from coastal areas. Holidaymakers were also ordered out of the Florida Keys, a string of islands stretching off the tip of Florida that could face heavy winds as the storm passes to the south.

After Cuba, Ike was expected to bounce into the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 4 hurricane and head northwest.

New Orleans and Louisiana, which evacuated two million people only a week ago ahead of Hurricane Gustav, were keeping a close eye on its path, although the latest computer readings from the National Hurricane Centre predicted that it would head on a more westerly track towards Texas.

But those already weary of hurricanes only halfway through the six-month Atlantic hurricane season may have to steel themselves for the worse to come, scientists said.

A report published in the September issue of Nature says that global warming may have contributed to Atlantic hurricanes becoming stronger over the past 30 years.