Deadly Ike rakes Cuba, could hit Havana head-on

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CAMAGUEY, Cuba (AP) -- Deadly Hurricane Ike roared across Cuba on Monday, blowing buildings to rubble and sending waves surging over homes. Some 900,000 Cubans evacuated from its path, which forecasters said could take it to Louisiana or Texas later this week.

Ike, which raked the Bahamas and worsened floods in Haiti that have already killed 319 people, made landfall on Cuba as a fearsome Category-3 hurricane, then weakened to a still-potent Category-2 on Monday as it ran down Cuba's spine.

Forecasters said it could make a direct hit on Havana, where decaying historic buildings are especially vulnerable, and weaken further before entering the Gulf of Mexico. There, it was expected to regain force before slamming into the United States somewhere along the Gulf coast.

"I have never seen anything like it in my life. So much force is terrifying," said Olga Alvarez, 70, huddling in her living room in Camaguey with her husband and teenage grandson. "We barely slept last night. It was just `boom, boom, boom.'"

As the hurricane's eye passed just 20 miles (35 kilometers) south of Camaguey, falling utility poles crushed cars parked along narrow streets and the roaring wind blew apart some older buildings of stone and brick, leaving behind only piles of rubble.

A tree smashed the box office of an old-fashioned movie theater downtown and huge glass shards littered the roadways. Toppled street signs shattered the picture windows of department stores.

Families huddled inside their homes, watching from behind the iron gates of their doorways as diagonal sheets of stinging rain fed the water rising in the streets. A huge piece 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.

Images on state television showed the storm surge washing over coastal homes in the easternmost city of Baracoa. Announcers said huge waves surged over buildings as tall as five stories.

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.

"It's a huge evacuation," said Mirtha Perez, a 65-year-old retiree taking refuge with about 1,000 others in a Camaguey art school built on stilts. "We are waiting and asking God to protect us and that nothing happens to us."

State television said officials had taken measures to protect thousands of European and Canadian tourists at vulnerable seaside resort hotels. More than 9,000 foreign tourists were pulled out from the top 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.

A few street signs were topped 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 the military said cells containing the detainees - about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and al-Qaida - are hurricane-proof, and no injuries were reported.

Forecasters said Ike would likely hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people, early Tuesday. Morning skies were only cloudy, but schools were closed and domestic flights were suspended Monday.

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.

The hurricane also slowed efforts to bring oil and gas production back online in the Gulf of Mexico following Hurricane Gustav.

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.

In flooded Haiti, Ike made an already grim situation abysmal.

At least 58 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept the impoverished Caribbean nation Sunday. Officials also found three more bodies from a previous storm, raising Haiti's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 319. A Dominican man was crushed by a falling tree.

Haiti's coastal town of Cabaret was particularly hard hit - 21 victims were stacked in a mud-caked pile in a funeral home there, including two pregnant women, one with a dead girl still in her arms.

Off Mexico, Tropical Storm Lowell was moving northwest parallel to the Pacific coast with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph (96 kph). The hurricane center forecast it could veer into the Baja California Peninsula late in the week.