KEY WEST, Fla. - Powerful Hurricane Ike rolled down an uncertain path Sunday that may lead to the U.S. Gulf Coast late this week, forcing emergency officials to pay attention and leaving millions of people from Florida to Mexico to wonder where it will eventually strike.
Officials in the Florida Keys started a phased evacuation for residents Sunday morning after telling visitors a day earlier to get out. Ike, a dangerous Category 4 storm with winds early Sunday of near 135 mph, was forecast to affect the Keys starting Monday night on a potential track for the central Gulf.
Ike roared across the low-lying Turks and Caicos island chain before dawn Sunday as people in the British territory sought refuge in emergency shelters or in their homes.
At 11 a.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Ike's eye had passed over Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas and was about 15 miles west-southwest of the island. It was moving west about 13 mph on a path that was expected to take it through the southeastern Bahamas and near or over eastern Cuba Sunday night and central Cuba late Monday.
The center said a hurricane watch was issued at 11 a.m. for the Florida Keys from Ocean Reef, Fla. southward, including the Dry Tortugas.
"These storms have a mind of their own," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said after a meeting Saturday with mayors and emergency officials. "There are no rules, so what we have to do is be prepared, be smart, vigilant and alert."
Florida Keys officials began resident evacuations on the low-lying chain of islands in phases, starting at the end in Key West by 8 a.m. and continuing throughout the day — at noon for the Middle Keys, and at 4 p.m. for the Upper Keys, including Key Largo. Visitors were told to leave Saturday.
"We do understand the inconvenience of evacuations for Keys residents and visitors, but their safety is our top priority," said Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi. "It's just too close to not react to it."
Still, the streets of Key West were practically empty Sunday morning, but not because of the storm — the town stays up late and sleeps late.
Rick Van Leuven, 46, manager of the Rick's and Durty Harry's Entertainment Complex, said everyone is pretty much waiting until Monday to see where the storm will go.
"None of us are running," he said. "We're all going to stay."
In Haiti, authorities tried to move thousands of people into shelters ahead of Ike while still struggling to recover from a drenching from Tropical Storm Hanna. Rescue workers feared Hanna's death toll could rise into the hundreds in the flooded city of Gonaives if Ike dumped more rain from outer storm bands as the storm rumbled nearby.
In Louisiana, still recovering from last week's Hurricane Gustav, Gov. Bobby Jindal set up a task force to prepare for the possibility of more havoc.
"We're not hoping for another strike, another storm, but we're ready," he said.
Even as Gustav evacuees headed home, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said officials were anxiously monitoring Ike on a projected path toward the Gulf.
"Our citizens are weary and they're tired and they have spent a lot of money evacuating ... from Gustav," he said. He added that if Ike were to threaten, "my expectations this time is, it will be very difficult to move the kind of numbers out of this city that we moved during Gustav."
The storm had sustained winds of near 135 mph and even stronger gusts after muscling up from a Category 3 to a Category 4 storm Saturday. It was moving nearly due west at about 15 mph and expected to turn slightly toward the northwest Monday.
"It's a very dangerous storm," hurricane center meteorologist Colin McAdie told The Associated Press. "There's going to be some ups and downs, but we expect it to remain a major hurricane over the next couple days."
The hurricane center said Ike was generating large swells at sea that could generate life-threatening rip currents along portions of coast in the southeastern U.S.
Tourists were urged to leave the Bahamas, and authorities in the Dominican Republic began evacuating dozens of families from river banks that could flood because of two already overfilled dams.