MIAMI -- Hurricane Ike churned through central Cuba today with 100 mph winds, whipping up a five-story storm surge that crashed over seaside towns and villages and toppled utility poles and dilapidated buildings.
Images broadcast by Cuban state television showed 50-foot waves sweeping over the low sea wall and rushing through empty streets in the eastern city of Baracoa. In Camaguey, an agricultural stronghold near the country's important nickel mining and processing operations, ferocious winds tore through neighborhoods of wooden homes, ripping off roofs and hurling the detritus into fences, walls and windows.
More than 900,000 Cubans were evacuated to inland schools, hospitals and other cement-walled buildings commandeered by the communist government's civil defense forces.
Ike weakened to a Category 2 hurricane as it roared across the eastern provinces, then moved over water again at midday near the battened-down colonial town of Trinidad.
The storm's earlier-than-expected move south of the island eased the fears of Floridians that Ike could hit the Keys. A mandatory evacuation was called off, but Gov. Charlie Crist appealed to the 20,000 tourists and residents who left to hold off on returning until emergency services were fully restored and the storm was well clear of the area.
Although Ike bypassed Florida, the storm's outer bands whipped up powerful waves along the state's Atlantic coast, attracting surfers despite the National Weather Service warning of "dangerous and life-threatening rip currents." At least a dozen surfers had to be rescued near Jacksonville, local police reported.
Ike was moving directly westward at about 14 mph, the National Hurricane Center in Miami reported, and was expected to ease to a Category 1, with sustained winds of 74-95 mph, as it traced Cuba's southeastern coast today and Tuesday. Forecasts show the storm crossing into the Gulf of Mexico later in the week, regaining strength to a Category 3 before moving into Texas toward the weekend.
Cuba's rigid enforcement of evacuation orders accounted for the minimal casualties suffered by the island, in contrast to other Caribbean countries in the region's notorious Hurricane Alley.
The Bahamas also sustained only property damage when Ike pounded Great Inagua, the southernmost island in the archipelago, on Sunday. Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham credited improved disaster management practices and building codes for sparing the island any loss of life when Ike tore through with Category 4 winds of 135 mph.
In Haiti, however, where mudslides inundated the western ports of Gonaives and Cabaret over the weekend, dozens of bodies pulled from the fetid floodwaters piled up at makeshift morgues. U.N. peacekeepers and the impoverished country's resident army of aid workers were ferrying food, water and emergency medical supplies to the coastal cities where at least 350,000 were displaced and as many as 500 killed.
The U.S. Embassy in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, reported that the Navy's amphibious assault ship Kearsage arrived to assist disaster victims, with $10 million in relief supplies on board.