Thousands seek shelter as Hurricane Ike pounds Cuba

Hurricane Ike has forced about 900,000 people in Cuba to leave their homes after the powerful storm moved west across the island on Monday.

Officials take measures to protect Canadian tourists in Varadero

Hurricane Ike has forced about 900,000 people in Cuba to leave their homes after the powerful storm moved west across the island on Monday.

Although Ike had moved offshore by early afternoon, residents in Havana were preparing for the deadly storm to hit the capital early Tuesday. It's expected to bring heavy rain, high winds and dangerous storm surges.

It has already ripped roofs off houses, knocked down trees and sent waves crashing into homes in eastern Cuba. Three Cuban provinces were battered by the storm on Monday.

"I have never seen anything like it in my life. So much force is terrifying," said Olga Alvarez, 70, huddling in her living room in Camaguey with her husband and teenage grandson. "We barely slept last night. It was just 'boom, boom, boom.'"

"We need to be thankful that it's weakening," said Juan Jacomino, a freelance reporter, in a telephone interview from Havana.

Ike made landfall in northeastern Cuba as a dangerous Category 3 hurricane late Sunday but weakened to a Category 1 storm by Monday evening.

There were no immediate reports of deaths in Cuba.

Ike moved offshore by early afternoon, giving it fuel to maintain its strength over Cuba.

"It's over warm waters," said Felix Garcia, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "It can definitely maintain its strength right now, and when it's out of Cuba it has the potential to become a lot stronger."

Ike was expected to hit Havana before entering the Gulf of Mexico, where it will likely regain strength before hitting Louisiana or Texas on the weekend.

A hurricane watch for the Florida Keys was discontinued Monday evening.

Cuba still recovering from Gustav

Jacomino said schools are closed in the eastern provinces, while there are no buses, trains or domestic flights leaving Havana.

According to Cuba's National Meteorological Institute, the storm has dumped heavy rain on eastern Cuba. Communities along the northeastern coast are being threatened by storm surges.

State television footage showed huge waves hitting coastal homes in the eastern city of Baracoa. Dozens of buildings were said to be practically destroyed.

Cuba, a country of 11 million people, is still recovering from Hurricane Gustav, which hit western provinces last week.

At the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in southeast Cuba, the U.S. military said the cells holding detainees can withstand the hurricane. There are about 255 men, including one Canadian, being held at the base.

Thousands of tourists forced out of hotel

Former president Fidel Castro has released a statement urging Cubans to follow security measures. The communist country has experience in carrying out huge evacuations in advance of hurricanes.

According to state television, officials have taken steps to protect Canadian and European tourists at resort hotels.

More than 9,000 foreign tourists have been forced to leave a major resort hotel in Varadero, a popular destination east of Havana.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Department warned Canadians against non-essential travel to Cuba in its travel report on the country updated on Sunday.

"Hurricane conditions, including excessive rainfall and violent winds, may cause flash flooding and landslides in this region, which may lead to transportation and communications problems," it said in its report on Cuba.

It said emergency and medical care, water and food supplies may be affected.

"Canadians residing in or travelling to the affected areas should exercise caution, monitor local news and weather reports, and follow the advice of local authorities," it said.

The department urged Canadians to contact their travel agent or tour operator to determine whether the storm will disrupt travel arrangements.

The hurricane slammed into the Turks and Caicos Islands Saturday night as an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm.

Ike reportedly damaged about 80 per cent of homes on Grand Turk, the main island in the Turks and Caicos.

The storm also battered the Bahamas and made flooding worse in Haiti. Authorities are blaming Hurricane Ike for at least 61 deaths in Haiti.

Four storms have hit the poor country in less than a month, killing at least 321 people.

Storm veering west

U.S. officials on Monday cancelled an evacuation of the Florida Keys as forecasts showed the hurricane veering west. State officials still urged tourists to stay away until Wednesday.

Forecasters said that, after passing into the Gulf of Mexico, Ike could hit land over the weekend near the Texas-Louisiana border, possibly not far from Houston.

By 5 p.m. ET Monday, Ike had maximum sustained winds of 129 km/h and was about 72 kilometres southeast of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

With files from the Associated Press