KEY WEST, Fla. -- Hurricane Ike's winds and massive storm surge ripped apart houses and toppled trees Monday as the deadly storm roared across Cuba and predictions that the ferocious storm could enter the Gulf of Mexico prompted evacuations along the U.S. coast.
Residents from Key West to the Gulf Coast watched Ike's unpredictable path, worrying it could hit anywhere in the U.S. from Texas to Florida.
Still, even with an evacuation order in place for the Keys and the region also under a hurricane watch, many were reluctant to leave, hoping the storm would turn west, sparing this low-lying island chain a devastating blow.
Ike bore down on Cuba after roaring across other Caribbean islands Sunday, tearing apart houses, wiping out crops and worsening floods in Haiti that have already killed more than 300 people.
With Ike forecast to sweep across Cuba through Monday and Tuesday, and possibly hit Havana head-on, hundreds of thousands of Cubans evacuated to shelters or higher ground. To the north, about 15,000 tourists had already fled the Florida Keys up a narrow mostly two-lane highway.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said powerful Ike roared ashore in eastern Cuba Sunday night.
The hurricane center said Ike slammed into Cuba's Holguin province at 9:45 p.m. EDT as a dangerous Category 3 storm. The hurricane weakened to a Category 2 storm early Monday as it moved over Cuba.
Kimberlain said the storm is expected to re-emerge sometime Tuesday over the Caribbean island's western coast before taking aim next at the Gulf of Mexico and possibly the lower Keys in Florida.
Forecasters were urging coastal residents all along the Gulf from Florida to Mexico to be watching as Ike takes its uncertain path.
And once again, New Orleans — still recovering from the weaker-than-expected Hurricane Gustav — is in the cross hairs.
In Key West, evacuation orders became mandatory Sunday for tourists, some 15,000 who fled, and the approximately 25,000 residents, most of whom stayed behind, at least for now.
At 5 a.m. EDT Monday, Ike was a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds near 105 mph. It was forecast to track over Cuba, re-emerging over the island's western coast Tuesday morning about 100 miles south of Key West as a Category 1.
Ike had previously been a dangerous Category 4 hurricane packing 135-mph winds. Still it was a fierce storm: hurricane force winds stretched up to 60 miles from the eye and tropical force winds nearly 200 miles outward.
President Bush declared a state of emergency for Florida because of Ike on Sunday and ordered federal money to supplement state and local response efforts.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Sunday for Ike and urged residents to get ready to head north again. He said so-called "hurricane fatigue" should not prevent people from evacuating their homes for the second time in 10 days.