MIAMI (AFP) — Tropical Storm Hanna closed in on the US east coast Friday on the verge of hurricane strength after leaving 136 dead in Haiti, as powerful Hurricane Ike threatened Caribbean islands and the United States.
A major rain-generator, Hanna churned through the Bahamas en route to the US Atlantic coast, prompting emergency preparations along more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) of coastline before its expected arrival late Friday, after unleashing flooding and landslides in Haiti that left thousands homeless and as many as 200,000 with little or no food or water.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasts the storm will crash ashore near North or South Carolina and race up the US east coast, potentially affecting tens of millions Americans along the eastern seaboard.
Heavy rain, wind and high surf were forecast along the southeastern coast ahead of the storm's arrival as governors in North Carolina and Virginia declared states of emergency. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford called for voluntary evacuations in two counties threatened by the storm.
Packing sustained winds near 110 kmh (70 mph), at 2100 GMT Friday, the center of the storm was about 255 kilometers (160 miles) south-southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, and moving north at around 32 kilometers (20 miles) per hour, the NHC said.
"The center of Hanna should cross over the southeastern coast of the United States (late Friday) or early Saturday, then move along the mid-Atlantic coast later Saturday and Sunday night," according to an NHC advisory.
"Although no significant change in strength is forecast before landfall, it would take only a small increase in wind speed for Hanna to become a hurricane."
A hurricane watch remained in effect for parts of the North and South Carolina coast and tropical storm watches extended as far north as Massachusetts as authorities prepared for possible flooding and kept a wary eye on a more formidable storm, Hurricane Ike, out in the Atlantic.
Ike was forecast to spare Haiti as it plowed across the Atlantic while the Caribbean nation struggled to recover from devastating flooding from Tropical Storm Hanna which killed 136 and stranded hundreds of thousands.
"At least for now" Haiti looks likely to be spared yet another hit, NHC spokeswoman Karina Castillo said.
But the poorest country in the Americas is still reeling from the devastation inflicted by a succession of three storms in as many weeks that killed more than 250 people in total.
The country's third largest city Gonaives remained largely under water following Hanna, and Senator Yuri Latortue who represents the city called the situation "catastrophic."
"I know perfectly well that the hurricane season has hit our entire country, but the situation in Gonaives is truly special, because now some 200,000 people there haven't eaten in three days," Latortue said.
A lifeline was extended to thousands of people in and around Gonaives Friday when a boat carrying tons of World Food Program relief supplies docked at the port, the WFP said.
Haiti's government pleaded for international aid, and the United Nations was in the process of launching an emergency appeal. Switzerland, France, the United States, the European Union and the Red Cross were among the countries and bodies to commit emergency relief.
While it may spare Haiti, Ike was on course to batter the Bahamas Saturday and Sunday before possibly slamming into Cuba, another island nation recently battered by this hurricane season's conga line of storms.
Ike is then forecast to make landfall in south Florida on Wednesday as a major hurricane, Castillo warned.
Densely populated south Florida, including the cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, has not been hit by a major hurricane since devastating Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Andrew was the costliest natural disaster in US history until it was topped by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Ike was downgraded slightly Friday but remained dangerous, the NHC said.
With sustained winds of 185 kilometers (115 miles) per hour, the hurricane over the western Atlantic was now a category three on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, but the center said Ike was still "expected to be a major hurricane as it nears the hurricane watch area."
As of 2100 GMT Friday, the eye of Ike was 745 kilometers (460 miles) northeast of Grand Turk Island and was moving west at about 24 kilometers (15 miles) per hour, the NHC said.
Ike and Hanna were part of a trio of storms in the Atlantic, with Tropical Storm Josephine churning in the eastern Atlantic off of Cape Verde.
The storms follow Hurricane Gustav, which ripped through the Caribbean then slammed the US Gulf Coast, and Tropical Storm Fay, which also pounded several Caribbean islands and made landfall in Florida four times, dumping record amounts of rain.