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Gustav whacks Cuba, 240,000 evacuated

Gustav slammed into Cuba's tobacco-growing western tip as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane Saturday while both Cubans and Americans scrambled to flee the storm as it roared toward the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans.

Forecasters said Gustav was just short of becoming a top-scale Category 5 hurricane as it hit Cuba's mainland after roaring over its Isla de Juventud province, where it toppled telephone poles, mango and almond trees, and peeled back the tin roofs of homes.

Isla de Juventud civil defense chief Ana Isla said there were “many people injured” on the island south of mainland Cuba, but no reports of deaths. She said nearly all its roads were washed out and some regions were heavily flooded.

“It's been very difficult here,” she said on state television.

Authorities evacuated at least 240,000 people from western Cuba, including Isla de la Juventud.

Gustav already has killed 81 people by triggering floods and landslides in other Caribbean nations.

Cuba's top meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said the hurricane's massive center made landfall in mainland Cuba near the community of Los Palacios in Pinar del Rio — a region that produces much of Cuba's famed tobacco.

He said the storm would bring hurricane-force winds to much of the western part of Havana, Cuba's capital. Power was knocked out there as shrieking winds blasted sheets of rain sideways though the streets and whipped angry waves against the famed seaside Malecon boulevard.

Tree branches and large chunks of muddy earth littered crowded roads.

Cuba grounded all domestic flights and halted all buses and trains to and from Havana, where some shuttered stores had hand-scrawled “closed for evacuation” signs plastered to their doors.

Authorities boarded up banks, restaurants and hotels, and residents nailed bits of plywood to the windows and doors of their homes.

“It's very big, and we've got to get ready for what's coming,” said Jesus Hernandez, a 60-year-old retiree who was using an electric drill to reinforce the roof of his rickety front porch.

The government announced it was stepping up emergency production of bread at state-run bakeries, and lines formed all over the city as people waited for loaves.

In tourist-friendly Old Havana, heavy winds and rain battered crumbling historic buildings. There were no immediate reports of major damage, but a scaffolding erected against a building adjacent to the Plaza de Armas was leaning at a dangerous angle.

Lidia Morral and her husband were visiting Cuba from Barcelona. She said Gustav forced officials to close the beaches the couple wanted to visit in Santiago, on the island's eastern tip. The storm also prevented them from catching a ferry from Havana to the Isla de la Juventud on Saturday.

“It's been following us all over Cuba, ruining our vacation,” said Morral, who was in line at a travel agency, trying to make other plans. “They have closed everything, hotels, restaurants, bars, museums. There's not much to do but wait.”

The U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, is hundreds of miles to the east, out of the storm's path.

On Friday, Gustav rolled over the Cayman Islands with fierce winds that tore down trees and power lines while destroying docks and tossing boats ashore, but there was little major damage and no deaths were reported.

Haiti's Interior Ministry on Saturday raised the hurricane death toll there to 66 from 59 and Jamaica raised its count to seven from four. Gustav also killed eight people in the Dominican Republic early in the week.

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