BY ELAINE DEVALLE, RENATO PEREZ AND FRANCES ROBLES | Miami Herald
Storm surges and overflowing rivers flooded neighborhoods and wind ripped roofs off as Hurricane Ike tore through eastern Cuba Monday, weakened, then spiraled toward Havana and western provinces slammed by Gustav last week.
As preparations were under way in the capital, authorities began evaluating damage caused by Ike’s strike in the east, where the storm entered Sunday night as a Category 3 hurricane that sent five-story-high waves smashing against seaside buildings and plunged much of the country into darkness.
Three rivers overflowed in Camagüey, sending water rising up to 15 feet above normal levels and forcing authorities to use amphibious vehicles to evacuate not only residents but people who had fled there from the coast.
Four deaths were reported on the island as of late Monday. In Las Tunas, where 18 people were hurt, the state-run media said the losses were ``unprecedented.’‘
(Javier Galeano / Associated Press)
The Cuban government put Havana and already battered Pinar del Río and Isle of Youth under hurricane warning, suspending storm cleanup there in anticipation of Ike’s arrival Tuesday afternoon.
More than 1.2 million people were evacuated.
On Tuesday, Ike is expected to move west along the southern coast of Matanzas, across the Gulf of Batabanó, and cut across the island in a northwest direction, between Pinar del Río province and Havana province. Forecasts put the Category 1 Ike and its 80 mph winds as close as 50 miles west of Havana, the country’s capital of 2.1 million people.
A strike to Havana would be disastrous for Cuba. Many people there live in overcrowded and crumbling old buildings, some of which have collapsed during heavy rainfall.
‘‘This has been huge. We had never seen a hurricane of such an intensity,’’ said Mabel Santana, 60, of Central Delicias, a town of around 35,000 in Las Tunas province. ``This town has disappeared. The majority of the homes were wood with zinc roofs, but most of the roofs were over 60 years old. My house lost the roof. I cannot live in it. It is very terrible to lose your home, knowing you won’t get it back.’‘
Santana is married to jailed dissident Alfredo Domínguez Batista, one of 75 government opponents arrested during an island-wide crackdown in 2003. She said her husband knows nothing of what happened to their home, to her, their two children or 6-year-old grandson.
‘‘I will have to wait until Wednesday around 1 p.m., when they give him 20 minutes to talk on the phone, to tell him that he lost his home,’’ she said.
``Trees are blocking the roads. There are no roads. There is nothing.’‘
In Santa Cruz del Sur in Camagüey, state media said the sea had penetrated nearly a half-mile inland. Neighborhoods surrounding the River Jatibonico were flooded. The industrial port city of Nuevitas suffered serious damage, as did Sierra de Cubitas and the city of Camagüey, Cuba’s Adelante newspaper reported.
‘‘The old houses couldn’t take it and collapsed,’’ Manolo Banegas said in a telephone interview from Camagüey. ``Many of the rivers are overflowing in the outskirts of the city. In the suburbs, streets are even more flooded.’‘
Also in the central part of Camagüey, there were reports that the wind blew the roof off the historic theater built in 1850. The cultural center and bank were also seriously damaged, and the cupolas of historic buildings were smashed.
‘‘It sounded like a cat in a lot of pain,’’ Elena Martínez said by telephone from Camagüey.
Her husband climbed their roof early Monday to survey damage and saw torn roofs for several blocks.
Radio Reloj reported 10,000 homes damaged in Guantánamo. Initial reports from the island also said there was ‘‘severe’’ damage but no loss of life in Santiago de Cuba. In Guantánamo, 200,000 banana trees were razed, according to the government newspapers.
Idel Marrero, a civil defense official for the city of Río Cauto in Granma, told the Cuban newspaper Demajagua that the sugar industry and other agricultural installations suffered serious blows.
‘‘At the December 15 factory, the largest producer of food here, the bananas are on the floor,’’ Marrero said, adding that the sugar cane crops were also ruined.
The head of the civil defense council in Camagüey said Ike caused devastating losses to government buildings and homes in Nuevitas, on the country’s north coast, at Puerto de Tarafa and to tourist hotels on Santa Lucía beach.
A storm surge and coastal flooding in the lower parts of the area also affected the tourist resort on Punta de Ganado beach.
Many trees in the Casino Campestre forest park were toppled, according to Cuban news reports. Las Leyendas Park was ``practically destroyed.’‘
‘‘In my whole life, I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ Juan Carlos Figueira, 40, said in a telephone interview from Holguín. ``There are many houses partially knocked down, trees are knocked down. There are many telephone lines on the ground. We don’t have electricity since yesterday and don’t know when we will get it back, because many posts are down.’‘
Civil defense teams began to evaluate the damage in the morning and found fallen trees, electric cables and transformers, partial or total crumbling of homes, roofless homes and schools, doors, windows and walls.
In Baracoa, just a few miles southeast of where Ike entered the island at Punta Lucrecia, seven people were injured, but none seriously, according to early Radio Habana reports.
‘‘With no sensationalism, I can say the damages were serious,’’ Luis A. Torres Iríbar, president of Guantánamo’s civil defense council, said on Cuba’s television news show, Mesa Redonda. ``The damages in Baracoa were numerous, especially to homes. There are 1,086 homes damaged, of that 346 could be considered total losses.’‘
Landslides blocked access to the cities of Maisí and Moa, where radio reports said there was a lot of damage.
A Radio Rebelde correspondent in Holguín said telecommunication posts fell and ``land phone and cellphone communications are impossible.’‘
The head of Guantánamo’s civil defense was shown on state television motivating residents by telling them how the mountains helped weaken the storm.
‘‘We Guantánameros slowed Ike down!’’ Luís Antonio Torres said.
Miami Herald staff writer Liza Gross contributed to this report.