By ANITA SNOW | The Associated Press
Hurricane Charley roared across Cuba early Friday, battering the capital with high winds and heavy rains before heading off toward the western coast of Florida.
Already a Category 2 storm, forecasters said Charley could develop into a major hurricane. It drenched Cuba and the Cayman Islands and killed a man in Jamaica.
Flanked by President Fidel Castro, a Cuban meteorologist said on live television that Charley made landfall shortly after midnight on Cuba’s main island on the southern coast near the town of Batabano.
The storm passed just to the west of downtown Havana, population 2.2 million, about two hours later. Authorities later said the storm had left Cuban territory, and thus far had reports of relatively minor damage, such as ripped roofs, broken windows and downed trees even though in some areas gusts reached up to 125 mph.
Charley began pummeling Cuba’s Isle of Youth off the main island’s southwestern coast with heavy rains and high winds Thursday afternoon.
A hurricane warning was in effect across Cuba’s western provinces: Pinar del Rio, Havana province, Havana city, Matanzas and the Isle of Youth, as well as for parts of Florida.
More than 149,000 people were evacuated in western and central Cuba as the storm approached and Havana’s international airport was closed, along with major seaports, Cuba’s official National Information Agency reported.
In Havana, shoppers crowded stores Thursday afternoon to stock up on batteries, purified water, crackers and other provisions. By nightfall, streets were empty after people rushed home to wait out the storm.
Only minimal damage was reported in the Caymans Islands, where Charley hit earlier Thursday when it was a much weaker Category 1 storm, with winds at 90 mph.
Charley was moving north-northwest near 14 mph and was expected to turn toward the north, steering it into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 30 miles and tropical storm force winds extended 125 miles. Maximum sustained winds were near 105 mph.
In Charley’s wake, there were reports of flooding and downed trees that made some roads impassable in parts of Little Cayman, population 150, and a brief power outage in Grand Cayman’s East End.
In Jamaica, 32-year-old farmer Byron Barret died Wednesday night trying to trying to rescue six other people from rising flood waters in St. Elizabeth parish on the south coast, officials said.
Flooding in Jamaica left some roads impassable and submerged crops in the southern agricultural region.
Charley was the third named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.
Associated Press writers Howard Campbell contributed to this report from Jamaica, as well as Nicky Watson from Cayman Brac and Gretchen Allen from Grand Cayman.