Hurricane Sandy rumbled across mountainous eastern Cuba on Thursday as a Category 2 storm, bringing heavy rains and blistering winds that ripped the roofs off homes and damaged fragile coffee and tomato crops, but caused no known fatalities on the island.
Two people died elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Even as it pummeled Cuba's rural eastern half, Sandy refused to lose intensity as storms normally do when they cross over land, raising fears that small mountain villages still unheard from might not have been ready for its wrath.
"It crossed the entire eastern region practically without losing intensity or structure," said Jose Rubiera, the island's chief meteorologist.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Sandy emerged off Cuba's northeast coast around dawn and was moving north at 18 mph (30 kph), with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph (165 kph). It was expected to remain a hurricane as it moves through the Bahamas.
Santiago, Cuba's second largest city near the eastern tip of the island, was spared the worst of the storm, which slammed into the provinces of Granma, Holguin and Las Tunas.
Some 5,000 tourists at beach resorts in Holguin were evacuated ahead of the storm, along with 10,200 residents, according to Cuban media. Another 3,000 people in low lying areas of Las Tunas were moved away before Sandy arrived.
State-run media said there was damage to coffee and tomato crops in Granma province but not as bad as had been feared.
Residents emerged from their homes early Thursday after a night without power, finding palm trees and some electric poles strewn across roads, blocking traffic.
Norje Pupo, a 66-year-old retiree in Holguin, was helping his son clean up early Thursday after an enormous tree toppled over in his garden.
"The hurricane really hit us hard," he said. "As you can see, we were very affected. The houses are not poorly made here, but some may have been damaged."
Still, Pupo said residents were used to such storms and would take the damage in stride. Cuba's communist government is known for its rapid response to natural disasters, and people on the Caribbean's largest island have long years of experience with hurricanes.
"We'll move forward," Pupo said. "We'll get out of this whole as we have many other times before."
The 18th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season passed well west of the U.S. naval base at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, where pretrial hearings were being held for a suspect in the deadly 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole off Yemen.
But it knocked out power for most of the 5,500 people living on the base and ripped some non-military boats from tie-downs, leaving them scattered on the beach. Officials said there was no threat to the 166 prisoners.
The hurricane center said that Sandy would likely still be a hurricane as it passes over the Bahamas later in the day. It also might bring tropical storm conditions along the southeastern Florida coast, the Upper Keys and Florida Bay by Friday morning.
A tropical storm warning was extended northward as far as Flagler Beach and a tropical storm watch was issued for the northeastern Florida coast.
Sandy also may combine with other weather systems to create a major storm over the northeastern U.S. next week, according to federal and private forecasters.
"It'll be a rough couple days from Hatteras up to Cape Cod," said forecaster Jim Cisco of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prediction center in College Park, Maryland. "We don't have many modern precedents for what the models are suggesting."
As Sandy crossed over Jamaica on Wednesday an elderly man was killed by a boulder that crashed into his clapboard house, police said. In southwestern Haiti, a woman died in the town of Camp Perrin after she was swept away by a river she was trying to cross, said Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of the country's civil protection office.