A car sits under rubble after Hurricane Ike hit Holguin, Cuba, on Monday. ((Associated Press))

Hurricane Ike moved into the Gulf of Mexico late Tuesday on a path for the U.S. and Mexican coasts, which could be in for a Category 3 storm by the time Ike strikes later this week.

The storm moved into the oil-rich Gulf after making landfall in Cuba on Tuesday for the second time. Ike touched down south of the capital, Havana, after cutting across the island nation's eastern tip two days ago and then churning along its southern shore.

The Category 1 storm has forced 1.2 million Cubans — roughly a tenth of the country's 11 million residents — to leave their homes and has killed at least four people, state TV reported.

Forecasters have warned the hurricane could grow into a massive Category 3 storm before slamming into Texas or Mexico by the weekend. At 11 p.m. EDT, Ike was just off the coast of western Cuba, 195 kilometres west of Havana. It was moving west-northwest at 15 km/h and its maximum sustained winds were 130 km/h.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the eye of the hurricane hit Pinar del Rio in western Cuba at about 10:30 a.m. ET, bringing winds of 130 kilometres an hour. The storm cut northwest and was back over water, entering the Gulf of Mexico, by 5 p.m.

'This critter was angry, really angry.' —Delia Oliveras, Camaguey resident

The storm ripped roofs off houses, flattened crops, dumped 300 millimetres of rain, knocked down utility poles and turned buildings into piles of rubble. It is being blamed for at least 79 deaths in the Caribbean, most of them in Haiti.

The Cuban Meteorological Institute forecast that hurricane-strength winds would begin to die down across western Cuba as the storm headed out to sea. 

Ike is expected to gather energy, possibly reaching Category 3 strength, before it hits Texas or northern Mexico on the weekend.

A tropical storm warning for parts of the Florida Keys was still in effect Tuesday night. The government of Cuba downgraded its hurricane warning to a tropical storm warning for the Cuban provinces of Matanzas, La Habana, Ciudad de Habana, Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth. 

'The whole city is in darkness': reporter

In Havana, power was out as a security measure, leaving residents in darkness overnight as the storm neared, and the streets were empty.

"We are in total darkness. The whole city is in darkness. It is very, very windy," Juan Jacomino, a freelance reporter, told CBC News in a telephone interview from the Cuban capital.

"It is very scary because it's hours and hours of wind and gusts that you feel like the windows are going to fly. The situation in Havana is one of tension."

Jacomino said more than 100,000 old houses in Havana, a city of two million people, could be affected by the heavy rain.

Evacuations in the capital began late Monday afternoon. The government closed schools and government offices as people boarded windows and stocked up on basic supplies.

Jacomino said damage to houses and infrastructure in eastern Cuba, where the storm struck two days ago, has been extensive.

"You will see this is going to be major for Cuba, economically speaking, I am sure," he said.

Luis Torres, president of the Civil Defence Council in Guantanamo province, said the hurricane destroyed 300 homes in the eastern city of Baracoa alone.

Cuban state television reported that authorities had taken steps to move tourists at resort hotels, including about 10,000 visitors to the island at Varadero, a popular tourist destination east of Havana.

Family tells of magnitude of storm

The storm was a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall on Cuba after hitting the Bahamas and Haiti. It weakened to a Category 1 storm as it crossed the island.

Delia Oliveras, 64, said in the central city of Camaguey that she has never experienced such a strong tempest. She and her family took shelter in a covered patio as winds ripped the roof off her living room.

"This critter was angry, really angry," she said.

"We have seen hurricanes, but never as big as this."

The at least four deaths in Cuba are the first storm casualties on the island in the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season.

Cuba was still in the midst of recovering from the last major storm to strike, Hurricane Gustav, when Ike hit. Gustav made landfall on Aug. 30 as a Category 4 hurricane, destroying or damaging 100,000 homes but sparing lives because 250,000 people were moved out under Cuba's extensive system to evacuate storm-affected areas.

The state news agency Agencia Cubana de Noticias said nearly 70 per cent of the electrical capacity ruined by Gustav had been repaired by the time Ike hit, but only a small fraction of houses had been rebuilt.

With files from the Associated Press