Hurricane Irma: Floods Havana streets, causes extensive damage

With water up to their waist on Sunday, residents of Central Havana now know they live dangerously close to the famous Malecón seawall in the Cuban capital.

It was the end of a terrible week that began with a distant threat from a hurricane named Irma, which was not supposed to dramatically affect the people of Havana. But on Saturday began floods that forecasters predicted would be “severe.”

And they were.

Photos and videos that circulated across the internet Sunday showed many Habaneros walking through water that reached their waist, others labored through chest-high water. Other images showed floating furniture, fallen trees and electric lines taken down by wind gusts and a sea that crashed over the Malecón and spilled onto the streets, covering several blocks as far inland as a maternity hospital in the Vedado neighborhood.

The government ordered last-minute evacuations on Saturday for residents in municipalities along the coast of Havana. But many people decided to stay in their homes, some to protect their belongings and others underestimating Irma’s strength. Authorities had to rescue those trapped in decrepit houses as part of an operation that included the Coast Guard, Fire Department and the Red Cross.

The water reached unexpected places.

“This is the first time in my life this floods like this,” a Central Havana resident who lives on San Lázaro and Soledad streets told the state-run Granma newspaper. “Sometimes it rains a lot and the streets floods, but the water has never reached this street.”

After hitting towns near Maisí and the cities of Baracoa and Gibara in the east, Hurricane Irma passed near Nuevitas in Camagüey and landed in Cayo Romano as a Category 5 catastrophic hurricane. But she did not stop there.

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The storm continued to advance slowly and lashed across the north coast to Caibarién, a coastal town north of Villa Clara and other towns further inland at the center of the island. It finally lost some strength and was downgraded to a still-powerful Category 3 before moving away from Cuba on Saturday, after whipping the city of Cárdenas and the famous tourist resort of Varadero, in Matanzas.

Authorities have not yet assessed the full extent of damage caused by Irma. But preliminary reports indicate the storm affected housing, power lines, tourism and agriculture.

It will be difficult to quantify the devastation. Villages such as Caibarién were flooded and houses of residents in Santa Lucia, a beach in Camagüey, were shattered. A witness told state television that some people clung to wooden poles at their homes so they would not be blown away by Irma’s mighty winds.

Matanzas, which evacuated 62,000 people, lost electricity on Saturday and the local Girón newspaper reported that the hurricane had wreaked havoc on Cardenas, but details were still unknown Sunday evening.

The extent of the damage to the electricity supply, which covers almost the whole country, led Cuban ruler Raúl Castro to issue orders to create local brigades to clean the streets and move fallen trees, so that electrical workers could concentrate on restoring power.

So far, authorities have not reported any deceased. More than 1 million people were evacuated throughout the country because of the storm.

Irma then made her way to Florida, making landfall Sunday morning and again creating havoc in the Keys before moving to Marco Island, just south of Naples on the west coast, where it made landfall at 4 p.m.

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However, Irma is not done with Cuba.

The storm will continue to cause coastal flooding “on the western north coast from Matanzas to Artemisa, on the northern coast of the provinces of Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara, and on the south coast from Camagüey to Matanzas,” the Cuban Civil Defense warned.

Authorities asked citizens not to leave their homes and shelters and not to transit through flooded areas. Photos showed many ignored the request.

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