As it approached the coast at midmorning, Charley packed winds of 145 mph, and it was expected to strengthen and hit the Tampa Bay area later in the day, dumping heavy rain and possibly spawning tornadoes.
Officials worried that a massive storm surge could devastate the heavily populated Gulf Coast region, with waterfront condominium towers and vulnerable mobile homes in danger.
Charley's center passed west of the Florida Keys on Friday morning, with the outer bands bringing rain and wind of up to 50 mph to the lower Keys, but only minor damage was immediately reported.
In the morning's earliest hours, the storm swept across Cuba, ripping apart roofs, downing power lines and yanking up huge palm trees and battering Havana with high wind and heavy rain. There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage.
The hurricane was arriving a day after Tropical Storm Bonnie came ashore in the Florida Panhandle and quickly moved north. Three people, including a child, were killed and 25 injured Friday when a tornado hit a North Carolina trailer park.
About 6.5 million of Florida's 17 million residents were in Charley's projected path, including about 700,000 elderly people, officials said.
"There's a strange feeling about this one," resident Mike Hamby told CBS News Correspondent Aleen Sirgany. "I mean you can see all the forecasters are a little more on edge with this one than they are other storms."
As CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports, one commercial fisherman's livelihood is riding on Charley's path.
"It's scary, don't know what's going to happen," Scott Daggett said. "Kind of worried about if we're going to have a boat after Saturday."
By 8 a.m., a shelter at Sickles High School in northwestern Tampa was full to its capacity of 500. Windows had been reinforced with screens and tarps to prepare for the storm.
"I'm scared that we're going to go home and nothing is going to be there," 20-year-old Amanda Kellogg said as she played blackjack with four friends, their suitcases, bedding and other possessions piled beside them.
At dawn Friday in Key West, fisherman Manuel Garcia was trying to secure his boss's fishing boat, the Cowboy III, in the Stock Island marina, where heavy surf was pushing the vessel against a cement barrier.
"If the water comes up, I can do nothing," he said, smoking a thick cigar.
The storm surge in the Tampa area could reach up to 16 feet state meteorologist Ben Nelson said.
Gov. Jeb Bush urged people in evacuation areas to leave if they've been told to do so, and reminded people inland who may not be directly in the path of Charley that they still could see hurricane force winds.
"This is going to be inconvenient. That's the way life is when you're hit with one of God's most powerful forces," Bush said.
Most everyone who had to evacuate had done so by Friday, reports Sirgany. For those who haven't, it may be too late - once winds reach a certain speed, emergency officials say, you'll be on your own.
Gary Vickers, Pinellas' emergency management chief, told people in evacuation zones there would be "a period of time where if you stay behind and you change your mind and you want to be rescued, no one can help you.
"We aren't going to go out on a suicide mission," he said.
The storm made landfall on Cuba's main island shortly after midnight near the southern town of Batabano, then passed just west of downtown Havana about two hours later. Gusts reached up to 125 mph.
An early tour of the capital, home to 2.2. million people, showed downed power lines and huge royal palms and other trees blocking thoroughfares. Electricity that had shut down for safety reasons was still not restored more than eight hours later.
Chunks of corrugated roof were ripped from the top of Marlen Perez's modest home.
"The wind was howling and I was screaming, `Oh my God, oh my God.' Pieces of the roof were falling everywhere," said Perez, 39. "... I thought the walls were falling down."
Before reaching Cuba, Charley drenched Jamaica, where one man died.
All the west coast of Florida's peninsula was under a hurricane warning, as was the lower Florida Keys. Tropical storm watches and warnings extended from the middle Keys to Cape Fear, North Carolina.
About 1.9 million people from the Florida Keys north through the Florida west coast were advised to evacuate, although only 1.1 million to 1.5 million were expected to do so before the storm hits, said Kristy Campbell, spokeswoman at the state emergency management center.
"In many areas, people are still leaving," Campbell said Friday.
Most of the evacuations were in the counties of Hillsborough, which contains Tampa, and Pinellas, a peninsula that contains St. Petersburg. All residents of MacDill Air Force Base, on another peninsula in Tampa Bay, were ordered out with only essential personnel remaining. MacDill is home to U.S. Central Command, the nerve center of the war in Iraq.