Hurricane Ike roared ashore south of Cuba's densely populated capital of aging buildings today after tearing across the island nation, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate.
HAVANA — Hurricane Ike roared ashore south of Cuba's densely populated capital of aging buildings today after tearing across the island nation, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate.
Residents in Texas and northern Mexico braced for a weekend hit from Ike, which has already killed at least 79 people in the Caribbean.
Winds howled and heavy rains fell across Havana, where streets were empty this morning. Towering waves broke over the graceful Malecon seaside promenade, which police barricaded off late Monday. Many of the historic apartment buildings along its length are in poor repair and vulnerable to collapse.
Police spread out across the city to halt all but emergency and official traffic. Roadways were strewn with tree branches and rocks, and the rubble from crumbling balconies littered sidewalks. Navigation was banned in Havana Bay, its usually placid surface stirred up by white-capped waves.
"The truth is, we are scared," said Nancy Nazal, who lives on the second floor of a high-rise apartment building overlooking the ocean.
Cuba, which has carried out well-executed evacuations for years, ordered hundreds of thousands of people — more than a tenth of its 11 million people — to seek safety with friends and relatives or at government shelters, state television reported.
State television reported that Ike killed four people in Cuba — the island's first storm deaths this year. Two men were killed removing an antenna from a roof, a woman died when her home collapsed and a man was killed by a falling tree.
No one was killed when Gustav tore across western Cuba — the same area Ike was pounding today — as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 30, damaging 100,000 homes and causing billions of dollars in damage. That was largely because 250,000 people were evacuated.
Evacuations are not mandatory in Cuba except for pregnant women and small children. But in an authoritarian state, few people would think to ignore the government's advice — and state news media make an example of the few who pay the ultimate price when they fail to move out.
Police told Niyel Rodriguez, 21, that she had to move to a shelter with her 19-day-old daughter Chanel. She huddled today with 109 expectant and new mothers and their children in a wing of an Old Havana maternity hospital converted into a shelter. Obstetricians and nurses were on hand in case anyone needed help.
"They came looking for me yesterday and brought me here in a patrol car," Rodriguez said. "I probably would have been scared to stay at home with my little one, and here they take good care of us. They give us breakfast, lunch and dinner and everything we need for the babies."
After raking the Bahamas and worsening floods in Haiti that have killed at least 331 people, Ike made landfall on eastern Cuba as a terrifying Category 3 hurricane, then weakened Monday as it ran along the length of the Caribbean's largest island.
It moved just to the south of the island Monday, then came back ashore this morning as a Category 1 storm southwest of Havana. It was expected to cross the island again and move out over the Gulf of Mexico in the afternoon. Forecasters said it would strengthen before hitting Texas or northern Mexico this weekend.
"When it's out of Cuba it has the potential to become a lot stronger," said Felix Garcia, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Even so, oil prices fell below $106 a barrel today in Asia on the theory that Ike might not be as disruptive to Gulf oil infrastructure as had been feared.
At 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), Ike was located 55 miles (90 kilometers) southwest of Havana, and was moving to the west-northwest at 13 mph (21 kph). It had maximum sustained winds near 80 mph (130 kph).
On the narrow streets of Camaguey, falling utility poles crushed cars and the roaring wind transformed buildings of stone and brick into piles of rubble. Colonial columns were toppled and the ornate sculptures on the roofs of centuries-old buildings were smashed in the central Cuban city, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Delia Oliveras, 64, said it was the strongest hurricane her family has experienced. They fled to a covered patio as winds tore the roof from the living room.
"This critter was angry, really angry," she said.
Ike destroyed 300 homes and damaged hundreds more in the eastern city of Baracoa, said Luis Torres, president of the Civil Defense Council in Guantanamo province.
Much of eastern Cuba was without electricity and phone service was spotty. The road between Santiago and Guantanamo was cut when a reservoir overflowed.
State television said officials had taken measures to protect tourists at vulnerable seaside hotels, including about 10,000 foreigners at the Varadero resort, east of Havana.
In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Lowell was projected to cut across the Baja California Peninsula on Wednesday or Thursday and emerge over the Gulf of California near the town of Loreto, popular with U.S. tourists. It had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph this morning, but was expected to weaken before hitting land.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Camaguey, Cuba, Jennifer Kay in Miami and Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.