Hurricane IKE roared toward Cuba with 135mph (215 kph) winds yesterday and was expected to sweep into the Gulf of Mexico where it could damage the US oil patch and New Orleans.
Cuban authorities scrambled to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people in the eastern and central coastal areas using whatever transport was available as Ike bore down as a fierce category-four hurricane that could flood the shore with 18 feet (5.5m) of water.
The storm was forecast to rain new misery on Haiti, where hundreds of people died in floods and mudslides caused by three storms in the past month.
Ike has battered the British territory of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southern Bahamas. Residents of the Florida Keys, a linked chain of islands, were told to evacuate as a precaution.
When it leaves Cuba, Ike could follow a similar path to Hurricane Gustav last week, toward Louisiana and Texas. That would threaten New Orleans, which Hurricane Katrina swamped three years ago, as well as the Gulf energy rigs, which account for a quarter of US oil and 15 per cent of natural gas output.
Thousands of tourists at Cuba's north coast resorts were taken inland or to safer locations near by while in eastern Las Tunas and Camaguey, ranchers herded cattle to higher ground and said the storm would wreak enormous damage if it hit the plains.
Ike was set to come ashore at Holguin, home of the nickel industry, Cuba's most important export, then move westward over the heart of the sugar industry. Holguin's mines and processing plants in the mountains were shut.
By 11am, the storm was moving west, sweeping through the Turks and Caicos Islands, home to about 22,000 people, and the sparsely populated southern Bahamas.
A steady stream of traffic moved along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys as residents began to evacuate, even though Ike was expected to pass at least 100 miles to the south.
"It's just too close to not react to it," the Monroe County administrator, Roman Gastesi, said. But many residents regarded the storm with typical Key West nonchalance. Pete Cooper and his wife, Diane, were bar-hopping along the waterfront on Saturday.
"We've prepared our house and feel safe," Mr Cooper said. "As long as it's not a cat-four, we are staying."
The storm's most likely track will see it hit the Texas-Louisiana border but long-range forecasts have a large margin of error and a slight deviation could take it toward New Orleans, which was spared from Hurricane Gustav that hit to the west of the city.
Forecasters expected Ike to weaken to a category-one storm over Cuba but to regain category-three strength as it nears the US Gulf coast.
Oil companies had begun returning workers to the offshore platforms that were evacuated before Gustav hit last week. But Shell Oil said it had stopped returning workers in case new evacuations were needed.
As of Saturday, more than 90 per cent of Gulf oil production and nearly 80 per cent of natural gas was still shut down, according to the US Minerals Management Service. reutersReuse content