By ANITA SNOW, Associated Press Writer
Fueled by Hurricane Wilma, the ocean surged over a wide stretch of Havana’s seawall and flooded area neighborhoods Monday. Military divers used inflatable rafts to rescue hundreds of people from inundated homes.
The churning tide spread up to four blocks inland, flooding streets and buildings with water nearly four feet deep. Cars were submerged and only the bright blue tops of public phone booths peeked out. Waves lapped at the front door of the Foreign Ministry building as young men in wooden boats rowed nearby.
The high waves and winds damaged buildings fronting the Malecon that curves for several miles along Havana’s coastline, from colonial era structures to modern glass and metal towers still under construction.
Plate glass windows were shattered, old wooden shutters were torn away and doors ripped off their hinges. Huge chunks of the concrete sea wall were pulled loose and thrown in the highway.
Throughout the rest of the capital, downed trees, branches, and other debris littered streets and highways.
There were no immediate reports of deaths or major injuries anywhere on the island. Nearly 700,000 people were evacuated across the island’s west in recent days as Wilma approached, the official National Information Agency said Monday.
“We’re amazed,” resident Laura Gonzalez-Cueto said as she watched from behind a police cordon as military divers in wetsuits, masks and fins escorting small groups of people in the black inflatable rafts with outboard motors. Once they reached higher areas with less water, those rescued were taken away for medical attention.
“Since early today, the water has come all the way up to Linea and Paseo,” said Gonzalez-Cueto, referring to a major thoroughfare four blocks from the coast now under more than 1 meter (3 feet) of water.
At least 244 people, including some children, were rescued during the morning, municipal official Mayra Lassale said.
Although the Malecon and adjacent neighborhoods often flood during storms, the extent of the flooding seen Monday after Wilma’s assault was highly unusual and reportedly occurs only when hurricanes pass along Cuba’s northern coast.
“The ocean is furious, as if it wants to take back the land,” Rodrigo Cubal, 42, said as he and his family joined scores of other Havana residents gathering to watch the crashing waves.
The waters were expected to begin slowly receding throughout Tuesday.
Flooding and high winds caused heavy damage to homes elsewhere along the northern coastal, including the northern coastal community of Baracoa, just east of Havana.
The outer bands of Wilma flooded evacuated communities along Cuba’s southern coast over the weekend while the hurricane clobbered Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The storm passed to Cuba’s north Monday on its way to landfall in southern Florida.
Flooding and high winds Monday caused heavy damage to houses in the northern coastal community of Baracoa, just east of Havana.
In Mariel, a port east of Havana, people stood outside their homes watching as huge waves rolled in one after another. “I’ve never seen waves like this,” said 30-year-old Joelsis Calderin.
The government shut off electricity throughout Havana and the island’s western region before dawn in a standard safety precaution. Power remained out in most of the capital at midafternoon.
Associated Press writers Vanessa Arrington in Mariel and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana also contributed to this report.