PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Hurricane Ike lashed homes with howling winds Saturday as it neared this low-lying island chain as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, prompting thousands of people to evacuate or scramble for shelter.
As the massive gray wall of clouds approached from the east, people poured into the main supermarket in Providenciales, expecting that power would be knocked out and that food would suddenly become scarce.
Shopkeepers and homeowners covered windows with plywood. Boats were hauled ashore or secured with multiple anchors.
"I am very, very nervous," said John Moore, a fishing boat captain, as he tied down his 61-foot vessel in a Providenciales cove. "It looks like it might go right over us, so that's not a good picture."
The outer-bands of the storm brought fierce, palm-bending winds and a scattering of rain. Still, a people lingered in the darkened streets or outside a couple of convenience stores that stayed open for last-minute shoppers. People began to trickle into a makeshift shelter in a vocational school in the Five Cays neighborhood, a poor area that experienced heavy flooding during Hanna.
"Once we get the fury of this thing, believe me, you will see this open up," said Colin Bascomb, the school's principal.
Ike's eye was about 60 miles east of Grand Turk Island Saturday night. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm's maximum sustained winds were 135 mph.
The governments of the Bahamas and Cuba issued hurricane warnings.
The approach of the hurricane also raised alarm in Haiti, where aid officials feared it could worsen deadly flooding. And Cuba, still recovering from a devastating hit by Category 4 Hurricane Gustav last month, was directly in Ike's projected path.
Forecasters said Ike was expected to reach the northern coast of eastern Cuba tonight or early Monday. Cuba's government warned people to be ready to take emergency action, but hotels said they had not yet started evacuating foreign guests.
U.S. military commanders at the Guantanamo Bay Navy base in southeast Cuba were coordinating storm preparations and securing anything that might be carried by the wind, said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Lamb. The U.S. base holds some 255 men suspected on links to the Taliban and al-Qaida in hurricane-proof cells.
Turks and Caicos Premier Michael Misick said his government opened shelters throughout the islands and brought in an emergency food shipment.
"We're still praying that the storm will make a northerly turn and we will be spared, even a little bit," Misick said.
Turks and Caicos and the neighboring Bahamas are close to sea level and are vulnerable to flooding from rain and storm surge.
To reach Haitian immigrants, many of them illegal, the government broadcast emergency messages in Creole and told law enforcement figures not to enforce immigration laws during the storm.
"At a time of disaster, the last thing on our mind is whether you are legal or not," Misick said. "The important thing is to save lives."
The airport in Providenciales closed after thousands of tourists and longtime residents of the typically tranquil island chain evacuated.
In the Bahamas, the government urged tourists to evacuate the sparsely populated southeastern islands and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force dispatched marines to bring food and water to the eastern islands of Mayaguana and San Salvador.
Turks and Caicos, a British territory, was pummeled for four days by Hurricane Hanna earlier this week. It caused widespread flooding and some damage, but did far worse when it drifted toward Haiti as a tropical storm, creating floods that had killed 166 people by Saturday.
Dennis Freeburg, who lives in Providenciales, managed to get a flight out to Florida, but he plans to return to the island chain.
"This is just ... the bad part of living down in the Caribbean, you've got to deal with the storms," the 46-year-old said as he waited to board a flight to Miami with his miniature dachshund, Rue.