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Posted September 14, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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Still reeling from Hurricane Charley’s havoc last month, Cuba on Friday girded for Hurricane Ivan by evacuating 40,000 people from flood-prone areas and directing some of them to a network of tunnels dug long ago to resist a U.S. attack.

Long lines formed at markets and gas stations, Havana residents hoarded supplies, and workers trimmed tree branches and cleared street drains as the hurricane that Cuban weather forecasters were calling ‘‘Ivan the Terrible’’ approached.

Cuba’s totalitarian government has long been highly effective at mass evacuations and other means of protecting life and property from storms. But this time the main motivating factor for those choosing to leave was the storm’s 140 mph winds, not the government.

‘‘People are panicking,’’ a 70-year-old resident of a Soviet-built apartment complex in Havana’s Playa neighborhood told The Herald by telephone. “I’ve never seen anything like it.’’

The woman added that other complex residents planned to stay home despite a ‘‘mandatory’’ evacuation order, out of fear of losing their belongings to thieves and a reluctance to move to the tunnels dug under Havana during the 1980s and 1990s in preparation for a possible U.S. attack.

‘‘Me, underground? No way. It’s very disagreeable,’’ she said. “I couldn’t take it.’‘

Ivan, the worst storm to hit the Caribbean in a decade and already responsible for 37 deaths, was expected to make landfall along Cuba’s south-central coast Sunday night, almost a month to the day after Charley hit the island, killing five people and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage.

Ivan was projected to sweep to the northwest, exiting the island between Havana and the Varadero resort to the east.

Expected to be hard hit are the southern cities of Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Founded in 1514, Trinidad is famous for its mud-walled homes, tiled roofs and cobbled streets.

But almost any heavy rain that hits Cuba usually collapses significant numbers of buildings, usually old and ill-maintained, and especially in the colonial sections of Havana.

‘‘There is general anxiety,’’ said Elizardo Snchez, a prominent human rights activist who said he nevertheless planned to ride out the storm in his 60-year-old home—eight blocks from the ocean. “The Cuban people have a culture of dealing with hurricanes and tropical storms throughout their history.’‘

Friday’s weather over Havana, he added, was “sunny and hot, like a normal summer day.’‘

“The only abnormal thing is that people are scurrying like ants, looking for supplies, food and stuff.’‘


Several Havana residents told The Herald that many stores had already run out of many goods, particularly candles and batteries, and that buses were packed with people who were running to make last-minute purchases.

One woman said the government had ordered neighborhood grocery stores to sell all their produce and issue current and future rations of the subsidized food items, so that none of it spoils.

But lines were reported to be even longer at stores that sell goods for U.S. dollars, where there is typically a greater supply and variety of food items and other goods.

One woman said she picked up $100 Friday morning, wired by her son in Miami.

But she had bought only food and water and nothing else by Friday afternoon. ‘‘I haven’t been able to find candles or batteries,’’ she said.

‘‘For three days they have been telling us that this is for real, telling us to prepare ourselves for the worst storm Cuba has ever seen,’’ another woman added.

She said civil-defense officials were moving all residents of high-rises to shelters. ‘‘Even the iron TV towers are coming down,’’ she said, referring to huge towers used by state-run television.

The reservations office for the Spanish-owned Melia hotel chain, which manages 20 hotels in Cuba, said that all its hotels in Havana and Varadero were already being emptied of guests. Only essential employees were being asked to stay, she said.

She added that guests removed from Havana and Varadero were being relocated further east, “where the risks are minor.’‘

In Miami, one warehouse had already been packed with more than 225 boxes of food, medicine, clothing and children’s school supplies, ready to be shipped as soon as Cuba gives the OK, said Eddie Levy, president of Jewish Solidarity. The humanitarian group has sent donations to Cuban Jews since 1993 and stepped up its efforts after Hurricane Charley, Levy said.

But other Cuban exiles said that they will not even try to help because they have no trust in the government of President Fidel Castro.

Said Servilio Perez, head of the Cuban Patriotic Political Counsel, “The hurricane in Cuba is Fidel Castro, and he has lasted 45 years.’‘

There was no advance word of U.S. economic aid to Cuba because of Ivan. Washington offered—and Cuba rejected—$50,000 in aid after Charley. Even if it comes, the newspaper Granma on Friday quoted Castro as saying he won’t accept it.


‘‘Let them save themselves the hypocrisy of offering aid to Cuba,’’ he said. ‘‘The only thing we can allow is a total end to the blockade and the economic aggression of our country!’’ Castro often refers to the United States’ economic embargo as a blockade.

Snchez, the dissident, said Castro’s defiance had not gone down well among some of his Cuban acquaintances.

‘‘Many people are indignant because they know that the government here does not have the ability to prevent damage that might occur,’’ he said.

Herald staff writers Elaine De Valle, Gail Epstein Nieves and Oscar Corral contributed to this report.

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