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As Hanna passes, new storm stokes fears

KEY WEST, Fla. — Hurricane Ike grew to fierce Category 4 strength Saturday as it plodded on an uncertain path that forced millions along an arc of coastline from the Caribbean to Florida, and Louisiana to Mexico to nervously wonder where it would end up.

Preparations stretched more than 1,000 miles, from normally idyllic island chains through Florida and the Gulf Coast, where people all too familiar with devastating storms were worrying again as Ike's winds picked up to 135-mph power.

First in Ike's path was the low-lying British territory of Turks and Caicos, already pummeled for four days this week by Tropical Storm Hanna. At the airport in Providenciales, Patrick Munroe had hoped to catch a departing flight, but was turned away, even before the airport shuttered.

"It looks really, really serious," he said. "And I think it's going to be devastating."

In Haiti, authorities tried to move thousands of people into shelters ahead of Ike, while they still struggled to recover from Tropical Storm Hanna. Rescue workers feared Hanna's death toll could rise into the hundreds in the flooded city of Gonaives and that aid efforts could be further impeded as Ike approached.

Hanna did not pack the same punch Saturday while racing up the U.S. Eastern seaboard, but did cause one death in a traffic accident on Interstate 95 in Maryland.

It also brought fits of wind and pelting rain on its trek toward New England. But it didn't linger long enough to cause widespread damage, although more than 100,000 people lost power at some point.

"I don't see anything too exciting about this — it's not too serious," 78-year-old William Cusick said as he walked his dog on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Ike is another matter.

Tens of millions of people in countries spread over a swath of the hurricane zone monitored the Category 4 storm's trajectory. The path shifted from time to time but ultimately seemed to point, once again, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Maximum winds rose to 135 mph Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, strengthening from a Category 3 storm packing 115-mph winds hours earlier. Forecasters said Ike was gaining strength over warm water.

Tourists were urged to leave the Bahamas, and authorities in the Dominican Republic began evacuating dozens of families who live on the banks of a river that could flood with waters from two already overfilled dams.

In Cuba, the island's top meteorologist warned Ike was a "true danger" and government officials began the early phases of emergency preparations. But no alarm was evident in Havana, where the U.S. soccer team was set to play Cuba in a World Cup qualifying match.

In Louisiana, still recovering from last week's Hurricane Gustav, Gov. Bobby Jindal set up a task force to prepare for the possibility of a new round of havoc.

"We're not hoping for another strike, another storm, but we're ready," he said.

In Florida, batteries, water and gas cans became major commodities, as nearly the entire state appeared within the cone of areas that might be hit.

The National Hurricane Center's latest forecasts showed Ike veering further south than meteorologists previously thought, but it didn't stop residents' fears.

Jose Calbo planned to fly to Chicago later Saturday with his girlfriend, leaving his Miami-area home behind.

"Why be here without power and lights?" he asked. "There is nothing you can do."