BY VANESSA BAUZA | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Hurricane Ivan’s ferocious eye slammed Cuba’s westernmost tip Monday night with 195 mph wind gusts and powerful storm surges that flooded fishing villages and tore the roofs off humble homes in this tobacco-rich region.
As the first Category 5 hurricane to strike Cuba in 80 years, Ivan prompted frenzied preparations and massive evacuations in coastal towns across the island. Early forecasts put the deadly storm on a potentially catastrophic collision course with Havana.
However, it traced a meandering path toward the Yucatan Channel instead, sparing most of Cuba from what could have been a devastating economic blow. On a visit Monday to western towns in Pinar del Rio province, President Fidel Castro called Ivan a “gentlemanly hurricane” that had proved “very courteous” by veering westward.
Still, tens of thousands of Cubans in that westernmost region huddled in governments shelters as 160 mph winds raked gently rolling hills, flooded rice and cornfields and demolished tobacco-drying barns used in producing Cuba’s famed cigars.
On Monday afternoon some residents wrapped in plastic tarps carried their children through the driving rain in last minute evacuations hours before Ivan made landfall. Even before the powerful storm touched Cuban soil, its outer bands downed some power lines in Pinar del Rio. The Cuban government moved four Soviet armored personnel carriers into westernmost towns to prepare for massive flooding and uprooted trees.
Ivan crawled at 9 mph over the Guanahacabibes peninsula, a sparsely populated national park in westernmost Cuba, and sent tropical storm force winds about 200 miles east to the province of Havana. Waves almost 20 feet high were reported in the Isle of Youth, which was also buffeted by intense winds and rains, and storm surges of up to 25 feet were expected along the south coast of Cuba.
In the farming and fishing community of Sabalo, about 160 miles west of Havana, 46 friends and neighbors crowded into the boarded up cement home of Miguel Antonio Santiesteban, whose family generously took in evacuees, cooked them lunch and heated coffee over a kerosene burner.
The evacuees ranged in age from 11 months old to 73 years. They slept on the floor between their precious possessions, including 16 refrigerators and six television sets, which they hauled out of their wooden and palm thatched homes.
“We are all like brothers and sisters,” said Santiesteban, 36, a self-employed pastry maker. “This is a war against an enemy we can’t see. Even if the house is full, there is always room for one more.”
“We don’t know what will happen, but we’re in a group, if anything happens we will face it together,” said neighbor Mislania Iglesias, 34, who evacuated from her wooden home to Santiesteban’s home with her two children and husband.
Many coastal towns were completely abandoned as about 1.3 million evacuated their homes across the island, mostly seeking refuge in friends and relatives’ homes. About 20 percent went to government shelters.
Ivan slammed 11 countries and killed more than 60 as it barreled across the Caribbean toward the Yucatan Channel and Gulf of Mexico. It struck Cuba exactly one month after Hurricane Charley damaged more than 70,000 homes, flattening hundreds of acres of crops and leaving thousands without power for almost two weeks.
In 2002 Hurricanes Lili and Isidore cut paths eerily similar to Ivan’s across the westernmost tip of Pinar del Rio, causing more than $47 million in damage to the tobacco industry’s infrastructure. Tobacco is Cuba’s third largest export after sugar and nickel, bringing in annual revenues of about $240 million.
While the tobacco infrastructure was largely repaired, many of the province’s poorest residents said they had yet to fully recover from Lili and Isidore, which were significantly weaker than Ivan.
“I depend on the state to help me repair my house. With two little gusts of wind it will be on the ground,” said Juana Maria Ayala, 47. “I have a dirt floor and wooden walls.”
On Monday Ayala and more than a dozen other residents waited out to storm in the bare Sabalo cafeteria where she works. She makes only about $5 a month, roughly the same as the cost of one sack of cement on the black market, she said.
Fisherman Antonio Alarcon, 28, breathed a sigh of relief, along with many others, with the knowledge Ivan’s eye would brush only the westernmost regions of the island. However, Ivan’s punishing winds and rains will surely be felt by Pinar del Rio’s most vulnerable residents who live at subsistence level.
“It could have been worse. It would have done away with Havana the way it did with Grenada and Jamaica. But we will still feel the effects,” said Alarcon, who was also evacuated from his thatched home to the Sabalo cafeteria. “My house has been damaged since the last hurricanes (Lili and Isidore). A commission came through to see the damages, but nothing was done.”