HAVANA, August 31 – Hurricane Gustav swept into the Gulf of Mexico late Saturday after ravaging western Cuba, where it tore off roofs, flattened buildings and plunged communities into darkness.
Having left at least 81 people dead in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica, Gustav smashed first across Cuba’s Isle of Youth, with more than 200,000 residents, and then tore across mainland Cuba southwest of Havana, which has a population of more than two million people.
While slightly weaker now, forecasters said Gustav could hit top category five force as it moved toward the US Gulf Coast for a direct hit Monday or Tuesday.
"Gustav is forecast to remain a major hurricane through landfall along the northern Gulf coast," the US National Hurricane Centre said.
New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin ordered the city emptied on Sunday in the face of what he called "the storm of the century."
Republican White House hopeful John McCain and his running-mate Sarah Palin decided to suspend their normal election campaign and visit Mississippi to inspect preparations for the arrival of Gustav.
Cuban national television reported that the scene in Isle of Youth was one of devastation after the monster storm earlier ground its way across the low-lying island of fishing villages, factories and citrus farms.
Homes were under water, warehouses toppled, and roads washed away on the Isla of Youth, state television said, and though there were some injuries there were no immediate reports of deaths.
Gustav then slammed into mainland western Cuba near the town of Carraguao, 100 kilometres (62 miles) southwest of Havana, and crossed towards the Gulf of Mexico, the Cuban weather service said.
Havana’s more than two-million residents remained on alert and took precautions for heavy winds and rainfall.
Used to fairly frequent smaller tropical storms, Havana residents ran around town Saturday gathering candles and food, boiling water and taping up windows.
Yet some were alarmed even with the steady flow of updates on state television.
"Really, I just did not expect this — it has been a long time since we have been hit by such a powerful hurricane, and this Gustav looks like it will be quite strong," said retired actress Gliseria Farinas.
A key concern for Havana is crowded and charming colonial era Old Havana. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1982, and its fragile, centuries-old buildings are prone to cave-ins after heavy rains. Most of Cuba’s housing stock is old and fragile.
Cuban authorities acknowledge that in Havana alone there are 1,000 buildings in what they call "critical condition." They include about 8,000 homes where some 26,000 people live, many of them in Old Havana.
Early Saturday, a Caymans official reported heavy damage from Gustav on Cayman Brac, the large eastern island of the Caymans group, with power and water supplies down. Hundreds of people fled into shelters on Grand and Little Cayman islands as some areas were affected by flooding.
At 0300 GMT Sunday, Gustav’s eye was located about 90 miles (145 kilometres) west of Havana, packing sustained winds of about 140 miles (220 kilometres) an hour, the US National Hurricane Centre said. It was moving northwest at 15 miles (24 kilometres) an hour.
Earlier Gustav left a path of destruction through the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica, killing at least 81 people.
In Haiti, it left 66 dead plus 10 missing. In the neighbouring Dominican Republic, the death toll stood at eight.
And in Jamaica the toll was seven, with many thousands displaced.
Anxiety meanwhile grew on the US Gulf Coast over Gustav’s trajectory, with New Orleans beginning mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas Saturday.
Roads out of New Orleans were jammed with people fleeing a potentially disastrous strike on the city just three years after Katrina left some 1,800 dead along the coast.
Major oil producers BP, ConocoPhillips and Shell on Thursday evacuated workers from their facilities in the Gulf where nearly a quarter of US crude oil installations are located.