Hurricane Ike roared toward Havana and its fragile historic buildings after forcing 1.2 million people to evacuate, killing at least four and ravaging homes across eastern and central Cuba. US residents from Florida to the Texas border with Mexico braced for Ike's next wallop.
The hurricane, which raked the Bahamas and worsened floods in Haiti that have killed at least 331 people, made landfall on eastern Cuba as a terrifying Category 3 hurricane, then weakened on Monday as it ran along the length of the Caribbean's largest island. Ike was a Category 1 storm early on Tuesday, but forecasters expected it to strengthen again before hitting Louisiana, Texas or northern Mexico this weekend.
On the narrow streets of Camaguey, falling utility poles crushed cars and the roaring wind transformed buildings of stone and brick into piles of rubble. Colonial columns were toppled and the ornate sculptures on the roofs of centuries-old buildings were smashed in the city, a UNESCO world heritage site.
"I have never seen anything like it in my life. So much force is terrifying," said Olga Alvarez, 70, huddling in her Camaguey living room with her husband and teenage grandson. "We barely slept on Monday night. It was just `boom, boom, boom."'
Delia Oliveras, 64, said it was the strongest hurricane her family has experienced. They fled to a covered patio as winds tore the roof from the living room.
"This critter was angry, really angry," she said. State television reported that Ike killed four people in Cuba the first storm deaths on the island in the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season.
Two men were killed in central Cuba while removing an antenna from a roof. On the island's east, a woman died when her house collapsed on her and a man was killed by a falling tree. Cuba, which has carried out well-executed evacuations over the years, ordered 1.2 million people to seek safety with friends and relatives or at government shelters, state television reported. In Havana, evacuations began in earnest late on Monday afternoon. "I feel safe here, above all for my granddaughters who are the most important thing in my life," said Marta Molas, who evacuated with seven relatives from a marginal neighborhood. "They take good care of us, we have television and food. When the electricity goes out we have a radio."
The government closed schools and government offices in the capital as people reinforced windows with wood and formed long lines at bakeries. Along the seaside Malecon promenade, businesses were being shut down.
Nancy Nazal, who lives on the second floor of a high-rise apartment building overlooking the ocean, said authorities told her to be prepared to evacuate.
"The truth is, we are scared," she said.
Evacuations are not mandatory in Cuba except for pregnant women and small children. But in an authoritarian state, few people would think to ignore the government's advice and state news media make an example of the few who pay the ultimate price when they fail to evacuate.
Gustav tore across western Cuba as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 30, damaging 100,000 homes and causing billions of dollars in damage. But no deaths were reported after mandatory evacuations of at least 250,000 people.
Ike first made landfall in Cuba in the easternmost coastal city of Baracoa, destroying 300 homes and damaging hundreds more, said Luis Torres, president of the Civil Defense Council in Guantanamo province.
Much of eastern Cuba was without electricity and phone service was spotty. The road between Santiago and Guantanamo was cut when a reservoir overflowed.
Ike was centered just off Cuba's southern coast early on Tuesday, gaining strength over warm waters, on a path to cross Cuba during the day and move out over the Gulf of Mexico in the evening. "When it's out of Cuba it has the potential to become a lot stronger," said Felix Garcia, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Late on Monday, Ike was located about 140 miles (225 kms) southeast of Havana and was moving west-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph). It had maximum sustained winds near 80 mph (130 kph).
State television said officials had taken measures to protect tourists at vulnerable seaside hotels, including about 10,000 foreigners at the Varadero resort, east of Havana. A few street signs were toppled at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba and power went out temporarily in some residential areas, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Lamb said. But no injuries were reported, and the military said cells containing detainees about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida are hurricane-proof.