Hurricane Ike roared onto Cuba on Sunday after destroying houses and crops on low-lying islands and worsening floods in Haiti that have already killed more than 300 people. With Ike forecast to sweep the length of Cuba and possibly hit Havana head-on, hundreds of thousands evacuated to shelters or higher ground. To the north, residents of the Florida Keys fled up a narrow highway, fearful that the "extremely dangerous" hurricane could hit them on Tuesday.
At least 58 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept Haiti on Sunday and officials found three more bodies from a previous storm _ raising the nation's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 319. A Dominican man was crushed by a falling tree. Ike first slammed into the Turks and Caicos and the southernmost Bahamas islands as a Category 4 hurricane, but thousands rode out the storm in shelters and there was no immediate word of deaths on the low-lying islands.
Ike made landfall in eastern Cuba late on Sunday night, said meteorologist Todd Kimberlain at the US National Hurricane Center, and was forecast to hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people with many vulnerable old buildings, before it moves into the Gulf of Mexico early on Tuesday morning.
At 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT), Ike was a Category 3 hurricane with top sustained winds of 120 mph (195 kph). It was centered near near Cabo Lucretia, about 135 miles (220 kms) east of Camaguey, moving westward at 13 mph (20 kph).
State television broadcast images of the storm surge washing over coastal homes in the easternmost city of Bayamo, and reported that dozens of dwellings were damaged beyond repair.
An informal AP tally of figures being released sporadically by eastern Cuban provinces indicated that more than 600,000 people had been evacuated by Sunday evening. Former President Fidel Castro released a written statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies.
Foreign tourists were pulled out from vulnerable beach resorts, workers rushed to protect coffee plants and other crops, and plans were under way to distribute food and cooking oil to disaster areas. "There's no fear here, but one has to prepared. It could hit us pretty hard," said Ramon Olivera, gassing up his motorcycle in Camaguey, where municipal workers boarded up banks and restaurants before heavy rain started falling.
More than 100 people waited in chaotic bread lines at each of the numerous government bakeries around town as families hoarded supplies before the storm. And on provincial capital's outskirts, trucks and dented school buses brought about 1,000 evacuees to the sprawling campus of an art school.
Classrooms at the three-story school built on stilts were filled with metal bunk beds. The approaching hurricane brought a stiff breeze through the open windows.
Mirtha Perez, a 65-year-old retiree, said hardly anyone was left in her nearby town of Salome.
"It's a huge evacuation," she said. "We are waiting and asking God to protect us and that nothing happens to us." Strong gusts and steady rains fell at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba, where all ferries were secured and beaches were off limits. The military said cells containing the detainees about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida are hurricane-proof. But the base was spared the strongest winds.
The Turks and Caicos had little natural protection from storm surges of up to 18 feet (5.5 meters). Premier Michael Misick said more than 80 per cent of the homes were damaged on two of the British territory's islands and people who didn't take refuge in shelters were cowering in closets and under stairwells, "just holding on for life."
In South Caicos, a fishing-dependent island of 1,500 people, the airport was under water, power will be out for weeks, and at least 20 boats were swept away despite being towed ashore for safety, Minister of Natural Resources Piper Hanchell said. Tourism chairman Wayne Garland was text-messaging with two people in Grand Turk during the height of the storm. "They were literally in their bathroom because their roofs were gone," he said. "Eventually they were rescued."
The Bahamas' Great Inagua island was hit soon thereafter, and both of its shelters sprung leaks in the 135 mph (217 kph) winds. "It's nasty. I can't remember getting hit like this," reserve police officer Henry Nixon said from inside a shelter holding about 85 people, who peeked out at toppled trees and houses stripped of their roofs when Ike finally passed.