High waves crash the shoreline of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba, as Hurricane Dennis slams into the island. The Category 4 storm is expected to hit the main island today and is on a path to threaten Florida this weekend, where evacuations are under way.
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL STATION, Cuba — Packing devastating 135 mph winds, Hurricane Dennis tore down a guard tower at the U.S. detention camp for terror suspects as it stalked Cuba's south coast and prepared today to strike into the heart of the largest Caribbean island.
Thousands of residents and tourists fled the Florida Keys, fearing Dennis would skirt the island chain or hit it on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, on a path that raised fears of further disruption to U.S. oil operations.
A Category 4 storm with 135-mph winds, Dennis killed five people, collapsed a bridge and blocked roads with downed power lines and trees in Haiti and Jamaica on Thursday.
The eye was taking aim at central Cuba this morning from 60 miles at sea, a few miles short of the storm's most dangerous winds, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
"It's right off the coast, they'll be getting hurricane-force winds before long if they haven't already," meteorologist Trisha Wallace told The Associated Press by telephone from the center in Miami.
Hurricane-force winds extended 50 miles with tropical storm force winds stretching another 140 miles. Dennis was moving northwest near 12 mph.
The first hurricane of the season sideswiped Haiti and Jamaica on Thursday, then overnight crossed a sparsely populated Cuban cape at Cabo Cruz that juts out far west of the island, Wallace said.
Dennis was expected to strike again tonight and cross central and western Cuba, including Havana.
Forecasters predict the storm will intensify and hit the United States anywhere from Florida to Louisiana by Sunday or Monday, the fourth storm in as many weeks to disrupt oil production.
The Florida Keys were on hurricane warning and the rest of the peninsula on tropical storm watch.
Thunderstorms swept over the Dominican Republic, southern Haiti and northeast Jamaica on Thursday.
Today, the Cayman Islands downgraded its hurricane warning to a tropical storm watch, spared from a direct hit by the storm's overnight turn to the west.
Also spared overnight was the U.S. detention camp on Cuba's extreme southeast end, holding some 520 terror suspects.
Heaving surf tore away a lifeguard tower at Windmill Beach and storm force winds reaching 40 mph destroyed a bus shelter. A few power lines and tree branches were knocked down and there was minor flooding.
"Actually, everybody fared real well," said Navy Cmdr. Anne Reese.
On Thursday, troops watched from a cliff as the churning Atlantic Ocean threw up massive waves of salt spray that towered over the razor wire fence surrounding the camp at Guantanamo Bay.
The troops fixed metal shutters over the steel mesh windows of some prison cells overlooking the sea at Camp Delta, which is just 150 yards from the ocean.
Hurricane Center forecasters warned Cuba's southeast Sierra Maestra Mountains could get up to 15 inches of rain, with about 10 inches falling on Jamaica's coffee-producing Blue Mountains.
In the southwest Haitian town of Grand Goave, an Associated Press Television News reporter saw at least four people die when a wood and metal bridge collapsed.
Witnesses said the river suddenly came rushing over the bridge. That cut off Haiti's southwest peninsula from the rest of the country.
Elsewhere on the dangerously deforested island, wind gusts uprooted a palm tree and flung it into a mud hut, killing a fifth person in the southern town of Les Cayes, the Red Cross said.
Floodwaters rose to waist level in an abandoned church in Les Cayes and nearly reached a table where 63-year-old Eloge Larame lay down, ill. His family of five stood on chairs, their feet still in water.
Wind gusts ripped tin roofs from homes and whipped sheets of rain that flooded roads.
In Jamaica, floods and debris blocked the road leading from the capital, Kingston, to the storm-battered east.
A man there narrowly escaped from a car swept away by fast-flowing floodwater on Wednesday night, a day before the hurricane passed.
Cuba evacuated more than 100,000 people from the southeast on Thursday, civil defense officials said on state television. Hundreds of tourists were taken to hotels in Havana and northern Varadero beach resort.
Thousands of students at government boarding schools were being sent home, and livestock was moved to higher ground.
The largest and most populous Caribbean island with 11.2 million people, Cuba suffers few hurricane casualties because the government cautiously evacuates people en masse, sometimes forcefully.
Dennis came right behind Tropical Storm Cindy, which made landfall late Tuesday in Louisiana and hindered oil production and refining. On Thursday, remnants of Cindy dumped heavy rain on parts of the Carolinas, prompting flash flood and tornado watches.
The hurricane center's lead forecaster, Martin Nelson, said it was the first time the Atlantic hurricane season had four named storms this early since record-keeping began in 1851. The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
Last year, three catastrophic hurricanes — Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — tore through the Caribbean with a collective ferocity not seen in years, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.