Hurricane Ike roared into Cuba on Sunday after destroying houses and crops on low-lying islands, and worsening floods in Haiti that have already killed more than 300 people.
With Ike forecast to sweep the length of Cuba and possibly hit Havana head-on, hundreds of thousands of Cubans evacuated to shelters or higher ground. To the north, Florida Keys residents fled up a narrow highway.
At least 58 people died as Ike's winds and rain swept Haiti Sunday – and officials found three more bodies from a previous storm – raising the nation's death toll from four tropical storms in less than a month to 319. A Dominican man was crushed by a falling tree. It was too early to know of deaths on other islands where the most powerful winds still blew.
Ike's center hit the Bahamas' Great Inagua island, where the roofs of its two shelters both sprung leaks under the 135 mph winds. As the storm passed, people inside peeked through windows at toppled trees and houses stripped of their roofs.
Great Inagua has about 1,000 people and about 50,000 West Indian flamingos – the world's largest breeding colony. Biologists worried that their unique habitat could be destroyed.
Todd Kimberlain, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center, said Ike reached land in eastern Cuba late Sunday night and was expected to remain over the island until Tuesday.
At 11 p.m. EDT, Ike was a Category 3 hurricane with top sustained winds of 120 mph. It was centered near Cabo Lucretia, Cuba, about 135 miles east of Camaguey, and moving westward at 13 mph.
The hurricane center predicted Ike's eye could hit Havana, the capital of 2 million people with many vulnerable old buildings, by tonight.
State television broadcast images in Cuba of a storm surge washing over coastal homes in the eastern-most city of Bayamo. It reported that dozens of dwellings were beyond repair.
An informal AP tally of figures from some individual eastern provinces indicated that at least 600,000 people had been evacuated in eastern Cuba by Sunday evening. Former President Fidel Castro released a written statement calling on Cubans to heed security measures to ensure no one dies when Ike hits.
Cuba's government said more than 224,000 people were being evacuated in the central-eastern province of Camaguey alone, where heavy rains were falling late Sunday.
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.
Twenty-one of the Haitian victims, still unclaimed, were stacked in a mud-caked pile in a funeral home in the coastal Haitian town of Cabaret. More than a dozen children were in the pile. All but one of the rest of the known deaths were in the Cabaret area, civil protection director Marie-Alta Jean Baptiste said. A victim of Ike was found in Gonaives on Sunday.