By ANITA SNOW
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA (AP) -- Hurricane Ike roared south of Cuba's densely populated capital of fragile, aging buildings Tuesday after tearing across the island nation, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate.
Residents in Texas and northern Mexico braced for a weekend hit from Ike, which has already killed at least 79 people in the Caribbean.
Winds howled and heavy rains fell across Havana, where streets were empty Tuesday morning. Towering waves broke over the graceful Malecon seaside promenade, which police barricaded off late Monday. Many of the historic apartment buildings along its length are in poor repair and vulnerable to collapse.
Police spread out across the city to halt all but emergency and official traffic. Roadways were strewn with tree branches and rocks, and the rubble from crumbling balconies littered sidewalks. Navigation was banned in Havana Bay, its usually placid surface stirred up by white-capped waves.
"The truth is, we are scared," said Nancy Nazal, who lives on the second floor of a high-rise apartment building overlooking the ocean.
Cuba, which has carried out well-executed evacuations for years, ordered hundreds of thousands of people -- more than a tenth of its 11 million people -- to seek safety with friends and relatives or at government shelters, state television reported.
"I feel safe here, above all for my granddaughters who are the most important thing in my life," said Marta Molas, who evacuated to a government shelter in Havana with seven relatives. "They take good care of us, we have television and food. ... When the electricity goes out we have a radio."
State television reported that Ike killed four people in Cuba -- the island's first storm deaths this year. Two men were killed removing an antenna from a roof, a woman died when her home collapsed and a man was killed by a falling tree.
No one was killed when Gustav tore across western Cuba as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 30, damaging 100,000 homes and causing billions of dollars in damage. That was largely because 250,000 people were evacuated.
Ike was pounding the same area hit by Gustav, and Cuban meteorologist Jose Rubiera urged residents to be very careful.
"We must be careful with the winds, and the rubble that can be kicked up by the gusts," he said on state television.
Evacuations are not mandatory in Cuba except for pregnant women and small children. But in an authoritarian state, few people would think to ignore the government's advice -- and state news media make an example of the few who pay the ultimate price when they fail to move out.
After raking the Bahamas and worsening floods in Haiti that have killed at least 331 people, Ike made landfall on eastern Cuba as a terrifying Category 3 hurricane, then weakened Monday as it ran along the length of the Caribbean's largest island.
It was a Category 1 storm on Tuesday just off Cuba's southern coast, gaining strength over warm waters on a path to cross western Cuba during the day and move out over the Gulf of Mexico in the evening. Forecasters said it would strengthen before hitting Texas or northern Mexico this weekend.
"When it's out of Cuba it has the potential to become a lot stronger," said Felix Garcia, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Even so, oil prices fell below $106 a barrel Tuesday in Asia on the theory that Ike might not be as disruptive to Gulf oil infrastructure as had been feared.
At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), Ike was located 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Havana, just offshore, and was moving to the west-northwest at 13 mph (21 kph). It had maximum sustained winds near 80 mph (130 kph).
On the narrow streets of Camaguey, falling utility poles crushed cars and the roaring wind transformed buildings of stone and brick into piles of rubble. Colonial columns were toppled and the ornate sculptures on the roofs of centuries-old buildings were smashed in the central Cuban city, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Delia Oliveras, 64, said it was the strongest hurricane her family has experienced. They fled to a covered patio as winds tore the roof from the living room.
"This critter was angry, really angry," she said.
Ike destroyed 300 homes and damaged hundreds more in the eastern city of Baracoa, said Luis Torres, president of the Civil Defense Council in Guantanamo province.
Much of eastern Cuba was without electricity and phone service was spotty. The road between Santiago and Guantanamo was cut when a reservoir overflowed.
State television said officials had taken measures to protect tourists at vulnerable seaside hotels, including about 10,000 foreigners at the Varadero resort, east of Havana.
In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Lowell was projected to cut across the Baja California Peninsula on Wednesday or Thursday and emerge over the Gulf of California near the town of Loreto, popular with U.S. tourists. It had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) early Tuesday, but was expected to weaken before hitting land.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Camaguey, Cuba, Jennifer Kay in Miami and Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)