Powerful Hurricane Ike may swipe Florida Keys

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KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) -- Most storm-hardened residents of the Florida Keys stayed put Monday despite day-old instructions to evacuate as a ferocious Hurricane Ike ripped across Cuba and stayed on track to swipe the low-lying island chain.

Gulf Coast residents from Florida to Texas watched Ike's unpredictable path, worrying it could hit anywhere in the U.S. after a projected track into the central Gulf later this week. A tropical storm warning was in effect for the Keys.

Still, many in the Keys hoped the storm would turn west and spare this low-lying island chain a devastating blow.

Barbara Kellner, 80, walked her dog in Key West early Monday, defying an evacuation order that had 15,000 tourists flee the Keys over the weekend. Authorities also have told residents to leave and said anyone who stays will be on their own.

"Us folks have lived here for years. We worry but we always think it will be OK," said Kellner, 80. "And we see the weather report today, and it appears it all will be OK."

Key West residents are a hardy bunch, generations of whom have lived through storms. They typically take a wait-and-see stance, and Monroe County officials said most of the roughly 25,000 residents of the Lower Keys were expected to stay put Monday.

"I never leave," said Bruce Hagemann, 47. "I think they called this evacuation too early, though."

Many business owners along the evacuation route in the Upper Keys had reluctantly boarded up their properties. A sign outside Island Silver and Spice in Islamorada said "Closed Til Ike Passes." At the Village Gourmet diner, only three customers showed up for breakfast Monday.

"It kills my business," owner David Gillon said of the evacuation orders. "It's hard enough to make it in the Keys as it is. Every time they do these evacuations, it's two weeks to a month before you get back to where it was."

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Ike roared ashore in eastern Cuba Sunday night, slamming into Holguin province at 9:45 p.m. EDT as a dangerous Category 3 storm. The hurricane weakened to a Category 2 storm early Monday as it moved over Cuba, with wind speeds still at about 100 mph

Ike tore through Cuba after roaring across the Caribbean, killing at least 58 people in Haiti. Forecasters had the storm track continuing west and into the Gulf by Wednesday.

Its winds and massive storm surge ripped apart houses and toppled trees Monday in Cuba as it headed across the country toward Havana and its historic but decaying old buildings. More than 770,000 Cubans evacuated to shelters or higher ground.

Meteorologist Todd Kimberlain said Ike is expected to pass sometime Tuesday over Cuba's western coast before taking aim next at the Gulf of Mexico and possibly the Lower Keys in Florida.

And once again, New Orleans - still recovering from the weaker-than-expected Hurricane Gustav - could be in the crosshairs as Ike winds through its uncertain path.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Sunday for Ike and urged residents to get ready to head north again. He said so-called "hurricane fatigue" should not prevent people from evacuating their homes for the second time in 10 days.

"We are likely going to have to become accustomed to evacuating more frequently than when we were younger," Jindal said.

President Bush declared a state of emergency for Florida because of Ike on Sunday and ordered federal money to supplement state and local response efforts.

"Every day the president is receiving multiple updates from the Department of Homeland Security, and he has spoken to several governors as they prepare for these storms," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Sunday. "The president urges all citizens to listen to their local officials and heed the warnings."