CAMAGUEY, Cuba – Hurricane Ike's winds and massive storm surge ripped apart houses and toppled trees Monday as the deadly storm roared across Cuba toward Havana and its historic but decaying old buildings.
Forecasters said it could enter the Gulf of Mexico next, with Louisiana among the likely targets.
More than 770,000 Cubans evacuated to shelters or higher ground ahead of the Category 3 hurricane, which earlier raked the Bahamas and worsened floods in Haiti that have already killed at least 319 people.
"We are preparing for a strong hit," Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage told state television.
On Florida's Key West, tourists and residents alike were ordered to evacuate ahead of Ike's expected arrival Tuesday 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 crosshairs.
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.
It made landfall in eastern Cuba late Sunday night, said meteorologist Todd Kimberlain at the U.S. National Hurricane Center, and was forecast to hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people, before it moves into the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday morning.
By 5 a.m. EDT, Ike had weakened to a Category 2 storm with top sustained winds near 105 mph and forecasters expected further weakening as it moved over central Cuba on Monday. It was centered about 40 miles east-southeast of Camaguey, Cuba, and moving west near 15 mph.
State television broadcast images of the storm surge washing over coastal homes in the easternmost city of Baracoa and reported that dozens of dwellings were damaged beyond repair.
Former President Fidel Castro released a written statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies.
Foreign tourists were pulled out from vulnerable beach resorts, workers rushed to protect coffee plants and other crops, and plans were under way to distribute food and cooking oil to disaster areas.
"There's no fear here, but one has to be prepared. It could hit us pretty hard," said Ramon Olivera, gassing up his motorcycle in Camaguey, where municipal workers boarded up banks and restaurants before heavy rain started falling.
More than 100 people waited in chaotic bread lines at each of the numerous government bakeries around town as families hoarded supplies before the storm. And on the provincial capital's outskirts, trucks and dented school buses brought about 1,000 evacuees to the sprawling campus of an art school.
Classrooms at the three-story school built on stilts were filled with metal bunk beds. The approaching hurricane brought a stiff breeze through the open windows.
Mirtha Perez, a 65-year-old retiree, said hardly anyone was left in her nearby town of Salome.
"It's a huge evacuation," she said. "We are waiting and asking God to protect us and that nothing happens to us."
Strong gusts and steady rains fell at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba, where all ferries were secured and beaches were off limits. The military said cells containing the detainees — about 255 men suspected of links to the Taliban and Al Qaeda — are hurricane-proof. But the base was spared the strongest winds.
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 — and officials 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.
The 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 coast with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph. But the hurricane center predicted it will veer into the Baja California Peninsula late in the week.