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HAVANA, Cuba - Strong wind gusts howled through blacked-out Havana and thousands huddled in shelters on Tuesday as Hurricane Ike churned toward western Cuba on a path that began to look less threatening for the heart of U.S. oil production in the Gulf of Mexico.

Foliage and debris covered the streets of the Cuban capital as the weakened hurricane hugged Cuba's southern coast after a rampage through eastern provinces that toppled trees, destroyed homes and downed power lines. Town were flooded by up to 10 inches of rain, swollen rivers and a surging sea.

"It sounds like Havana has been invaded by an army of ghosts," Havana resident Maria Valdez said as tropical storm force winds whipped through the capital.

Cuban media said four people had died in the storm. Two men were electrocuted when they tried to take down an antenna that fell into a power line, a woman died when her house collapsed and a man was crushed when a tree toppled onto his home.

Hurricane deaths are rare in Cuba, where the government conducts mass evacuations.

Ike's most likely track would take it over western Cuba and to the U.S. coast near the Texas-Mexico border by early Saturday -- a path that posed a diminished risk to the bulk of the 4,000 Gulf platforms that produce 25 percent of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas.


Power was out east of Havana due to widespread storm damage and areas to the west were deliberately blacked out as a precaution as Ike moved toward the Gulf after spending more than 36 hours ripping up the island from one end to the other.

Forecasters said winds in Havana would strengthen during the morning and be followed by hours of torrential rain. That was bad news for the Cuban capital, where more than half the buildings and homes are rated in poor to bad condition.

Thousands of residents waited it out in shelters and at the homes of friends and family.

"The winds picked up at around eight last night and it still feels like 100,000 devils are blowing at the same time," university professor Victor Hernandez said from the city of Cienfuegos on the south-central coast.

With top sustained winds of 80 miles per hour (130 km per hour), Ike was a Category 1 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale as it approached western Cuba.

Its center was about 40 miles south of Havana at 8 a.m. EDT and moving west-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Ike's effects were being felt in the Isle of Youth and westernmost Pinar del Rio, where Hurricane Gustav leveled nearly everything in its path with 150 mph (240 kph) winds 10

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