Ike becomes major hurricane over Caribbean

Hurricane Ike became a hurricane on Wednesday, as another storm pummeled parts of the Caribbean, and Louisiana residents began to return to their homes in the wake of Hurricane Gustav. ( dpa )

Hurricane Ike, currently located about 1,080 kilometres east-north-east of the Leeward Islands, gained strength quickly on Wednsday and was upgraded to a category 3 storm from a category 1 on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale late in the day, the National Hurricane Centre said. It had sustained winds of 185 kilometres per hour and was expected to move over open waters in the west-central Atlantic over the next several days, forecasters at the centre said.

Ike is following close on the heels of Tropical Storm Hanna, which was dropped from hurricane to tropical storm status and was aiming for the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the centre said. Hanna was about 320 kilometres from San Salvador, Bahamas at OOOO GMT and was expected to reach the central or north- western Bahamas in the next few days.

Hanna was blamed for at least 19 deaths in Haiti and sent thousands in the Dominican Republic fleeing for refuge on Wednesday from the third storm in just a week.

Another storm, Josephine, had weakened over the eastern Atlantic about 605 kilometres west of the Cape Verde Islands.

Florida Governor Charlie Christ said his state could be hit by one of the storms over the coming days and urged residents to "get their "hurricane supplies stocked up."

"You need to have a plan," he said in televised remarks.

In the US state of Louisiana, clean-up efforts and restoration efforts were underway after Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast on Monday. Twelve US deaths were blamed on the storm, after it had swept devastation across the Caribbean, hitting Cuba particularly hard and causing more than 80 deaths in the region.

New Orleans escaped major damage, but the state, including the jazz city, still had nearly 1 million customers without power and tens of thousands without water on Wednesday.

Giving in to the huge traffic jams of some of the 1.9 million people who evacuated over the weekend, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin lifted traffic blockades hours before the previously-set deadline of midnight, according to the Times Picayune newspaper online.

"No one will be turned back if you have an identification card that you live in this area," Nagin was quoted as saying in a radio interview. "This is not the best time for them to return, but so be it."

Surrounding suburban parishes had already lifted blockades by early Wednesday morning.

Hurricane Gustav narrowly missed New Orleans, and hit the Gulf Coast with reduced force, sparing the region damage on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in 2005.

The state also postponed congressional primaries that had been set for Saturday.

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