Hurricane Ike roared across Cuba today, tearing off roofs and sending waves crashing into buildings, as 900,000 Cubans fled to shelters or higher ground and Havana residents in decaying historic buildings prepared for a direct hit.
Ike made landfall as a fearsome Category-3 hurricane last night after raking the Bahamas and worsening floods in Haiti that have already killed 319 people. It was expected to tear across almost the entire length of Cuba, then enter the Gulf of Mexico with Texas and Louisiana among the likely targets.
"We are preparing for a strong hit," Cuban vice president Carlos Lage told state television.
Cuba's National Meteorological Institute said heavy rains were soaking the entire eastern half of the island of 11 million, and dangerous storm surges were threatening communities along most of the north-eastern coast.
Ike's powerful winds sent huge chunks of debris flying over the streets of the central-eastern city of Camaguey, which was just 20 miles north of the eye at midday.
Diagonal sheets of stinging rain flooded the narrow colonial streets, which were further clogged with tree branches, metal grates and plastic sheeting.
A huge sheet of plastic roofing spun like a top in the wind above a traffic intersection. Streets were deserted, save for a lone, miserable-looking security guard taking shelter at a bus station.
State television earlier broadcast images of the storm surge washing over coastal homes in the eastern-most city of Baracoa. It said huge waves surged over buildings as tall as five stories and dozens of dwellings were damaged beyond repair.
A tally of sporadic reports from six of the eight eastern provinces affected indicated at least 900,000 people had evacuated, and former president Fidel Castro released a statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies. Cuba historically has successfully carried off massive evacuations before hurricanes, sparing countless lives.
Ike had weakened to a Category 2 storm with top sustained winds near 100 mph and forecasters expected further weakening as it moved over central Cuba. It was moving west at near 14mph.
Winds reaching as high as 160mph damaged an undetermined number of homes in Holguin province. Roofs were ripped away and trees toppled across the region.
Foreign tourists were pulled out from vulnerable beach communities, including more than 9,000 from the resort of Varadero, east of Havana. Workers rushed to protect coffee plants and other crops, and plans were under way to distribute food and cooking oil to disaster areas.
Forecasters said Ike would likely hit Havana, the capital of two million people, early tomorrow. Morning skies were only cloudy, but schools were closed and domestic flights were suspended today.
On Florida's Key West, tourists and residents alike were ordered to evacuate and a steady stream of traffic filled the highway from the island. Ike was forecast to make landfall later in the week between the Florida Panhandle and the Texas coast - with New Orleans once again in the cross hairs.