Hurricane Ivan moved out into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday after pounding the western coast of Cuba with 250-kilometer an hour winds and heavy rains. There are no reports of deaths from the storm in Cuba, but Ivan has killed more than 60 people since it began its destructive path through the Caribbean last week.
Ivan is now forecast to strike the southern Gulf Coast of the United States by early Thursday.
More than one million Cubans moved to shelters as Ivan struck Cuba's western Pinar del Rio province with high winds and heavy rain. Reports from the area say the region's all-important tobacco crop was not seriously damaged by Ivan. Planting season begins next month for the crop which generates about $180 million a year for Cuba.
Ivan has now moved out into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening offshore oil installations and the Gulf Coast of the United States. The storm struck Cuba as a category 5 hurricane on a scale of 1 to 5, with winds higher than 250 kilometers an hour. While Ivan is expected to lose some strength, forecaster Rafael Mojica of the National Hurricane Center in Miami says it will strike land again as a strong hurricane bringing a potentially deadly storm surge ashore.
"Well, the storm surge that is expected where the center of the storm makes landfall, and that is hard to pinpoint at this time, will be dealing with surges ranging from three meters all the way up to five meters, where the eye makes landfall," he said. "That will mostly be to the right of where it makes landfall. Certainly it will be a dangerous situation. It could be a category 3 or a category 4 and it is going to make landfall as a major hurricane."
Ivan could come ashore anywhere along a 600-kilometer stretch of the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida. Ivan's hurricane force winds extend outward 160 kilometers and Florida's Governor Jeb Bush says it is important for residents of the Gulf Coast to pay attention to the entire area where the storm could strike.
"Do not get fixated on the line of the storm that you see on your local televisions stations, or if you are watching cable television or the national news," he said. "The storm will show a track but the impact of this will go way beyond that line."
Evacuations of coastal areas began on Tuesday and will continue until late Wednesday when the first effects of Ivan are expected to be felt. Florida officials are still dealing with relief efforts from Hurricanes Charley and Frances, which struck heavily populated areas of the state over the past month. Craig Fugate, who heads Florida's Department of Emergency Operations, says much of northern Florida is rural and getting relief to a spread out population will be challenge if Ivan strikes the area.
"Really one of the challenges is that this is a very large state, with a widely distributed rural population," he said. "Often that is as much of a challenge as when we have a concentrated urban population. So we have a lot of territory to cover with a lot of small rural counties that we might have to support."
Officials across the Caribbean are still tallying up the damage from Hurricane Ivan. In the Cayman Islands Ivan damaged nearly half of all homes. Much of Jamaica remains without power and major roads are still blocked by debris several days after Ivan struck. In Grenada where Ivan destroyed nearly 80 percent of the structures on the island food and water are reportedly in short supply nearly a week after Ivan struck.