Miami Herald

Some residents of picturesque Los Palacios, in the western province of Pinar del Rio, have already rebaptized their town in the wake of Hurricane Gustav: They now call it The Ruins.

In the storm Cuban authorities are saying was the worst here in more than 50 years—one that registered unprecedented wind speeds—Los Palacios has the dubious distinction of being the first that lay directly in Gustav’s path.

The pastel-colored houses in this town of 15,000 collapsed. Cars went flying. Power and phone lines throughout the city tumbled. At least 10 army trucks and several bulldozers charged into the community Sunday to begin cleanup, while the people in nearby Isle of Youth remained in complete darkness as every single TV, electric and mobile phone tower fell.

‘‘The devil came through here,’’ said Juan Carlos Rodríguez, who works for the municipal school management office and spent the night guarding the building. ``It swept it completely.’‘


People make their way through a street covered by knocked down electrical posts and cables after Hurricane Gustav hit the area in Los Palacios, Cuba. Javier Galeano / AP Photo

Gustav made landfall in Cuba on Saturday evening as a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds and gusts up to 212 mph, Cuban meteorologists said, sweeping by in just four hours and leaving a path of devastation. In a testament to the Cuban government’s unparalleled hurricane preparedness system, no deaths were reported.

Some 250,000 people had been evacuated in four provinces.

According to Olga Lidia Tapia, President of Pinar del Río civil defense committee, 86,000 homes were damaged, 80 electric towers and 600 electric posts fell.

‘‘Many people cannot go back to their homes because they lost them,’’ she said on the nightly news program Mesa Redonda, adding that people are building makeshift shelters with whatever materials they could find.

In the Isle of Youth, municipal defense committee president Ana Isa Delgado phoned in to the news show: ``Regarding housing, everything has been affected. All towns.’‘

Vicente de la O, who heads Cuba’s electric company, said that a total of 136 electric towers toppled over. In a previous hurricane, 30 towers were damaged and it took 15 days to restore service, but he said he hoped to have service restored in 10 to 12 days in Pinar del Rio Province.

The situation in the Isle of Youth was much worse.

‘‘100 percent of the electrical grid is damaged,’’ de la O said. ``Totally destroyed.’‘

In Los Palacios, Rodríguez estimated that 90 percent of the homes were affected, as well as about half of the electric infrastructure.

‘‘This is very sad. It’s unbearable to watch,’’ a woman in Paso Real said, as she burst into tears and walked away without giving her name.

An elderly man gathered pieces of clay tile. A few blocks ahead, a woman swept her wet front porch. There was no flooding in Los Palacios, but the rain seeped into many homes and also fell directly into roofless houses.

‘‘It was horrendous,’’ said Alberto García, a 68-year-old retiree.

Along the highway to Pinar del Río, tree branches partially blocked the road, and a twisted mass of electric towers lay on the ground like a row of fallen dominoes as far as the eye could see.

The force of the wind decimated entire fields of banana trees. At a police control station, all the lamp posts toppled over and the metal mobile structure lay upside down in a ditch.

In San Cristobal, fallen branches and tree trunks blocked the main street into the town. Many houses lost their roofs or were flooded.

In other destruction in Los Palacios, debris was scattered everywhere on the wet streets, in many cases blocking the roads with tree branches, downed power lines, tiles, masonry from ornamental columns, pieces of wood, doors, phone booths and corrugated metal sheets that once served as roofs.

Oddly, a community garden stood unharmed, its vegetable rows lined up in perfect order. Dogs and chicken roamed the streets.

The main school building lost all its windows on the upper floor, and authorities postponed the start of school until next week.

‘‘It will take us at least six months to get back to a basic level of infrastructure,’’ Rodríguez said.

There was no electricity, no gas, no fuel and no water, although Rodríguez said residents had enough drinking water stored for 72 hours.

‘‘I stayed in my closet with my two children and prayed the whole time,’’ said Mabel Ayerbe, a 36 year-old housewife and mother of two boys, ages 5 and 6. ``The little one was crying and the older one wanted to see the wind. The first pass took about two hours. Then, we were in the eye for some 45 minutes and the weather was totally clear. After the eye it lost some strength, but the first pass was violent.’‘

Gustav traveled about 100 miles when it entered Cajio and left the city of La Palma at 9:10 p.m., the state media said. The eye crossed at a speed of 11 miles an hour and was 37 miles wide.

The government media said the damage was so bad, the name ‘‘Gustav’’ may have to get scratched off the list of potential future hurricanes—a move only taken in the worst of natural disasters.

‘‘I don’t want to see this again. It was terrible,’’ Ayerbe said. ‘‘We no longer call this Los Palacios. It is now The Ruins. We Cubans are optimists. We’ll see how we work it out and p’alante!’’—onward!

This article was reported by a Miami Herald correspondent in Cuba, whose name is being withheld because the journalist did not have the journalism visa required by the Cuban government. Miami Herald correspondent Frances Robles contributed from Miami.