Residents of Baracoa on Cuba’s northeastern tip awoke to a world transformed Wednesday: collapsed walls, pieces of roofing and household goods littering the streets, downed electric wires hanging at crazy angles and large trees leaning against buildings.
The city of approximately 82,000 people was the exit point as Hurricane Matthew tore through a narrow strip of Cuba’s easternmost province, Guantánamo — from Punta Caleta on the southern coast to Baracoa on the north. It’s one of Cuba’s oldest settlements, and in 1492, Christopher Columbus visited.
Many of the homes in Baracoa are old — some centuries old, and nearly half of the dwellings in the province had been reported in poor condition prior to Matthew’s rampage. Many didn’t hold up well to the Category 4 hurricane and torrential rains.
As of Wednesday afternoon, no hurricane-related casualties had been reported in Cuba. After the hurricane passed, the Red Cross swung into action to free people trapped on second stories after stairways collapsed.
Cubadebate, a government news website, reported that the Baracoa airport and its control tower sustained heavy damage and that little remained of some coastal homes after 25-foot waves lashed the beaches. Sections of the coastal highway between Guantánamo and Baracoa also collapsed, the publication said.
“Total destruction in Primera Villa Cubana,” journalist Mavel Toirac of Primada Visión television posted on Facebook. “It’s still not dawn yet but anyone who passes through the streets sees them covered in flooring, fallen cables, unhinged doors, sadness..... We Baracoenses are going to need a lot of strength to be able to deal with so much destruction.’’
Arelis Alba, a journalist for Radio Baracoa, reported that the malecón, the city’s seaside boulevard, was “leveled” and “the sides of the nearby mountains were ravaged as if by fire.”
Hundreds of thousands of residents of low-lying areas and cays or those who lived in precarious dwellings were evacuated from Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Granma and Las Tunas prior to the storm. In Baracoa, some 36,000 residents were evacuated to shelters or the sturdier homes of family and friends.
During the day Wednesday residents picked through the debris-strewn streets, salvaging bits of furniture or anything else that seemed to be of value.
The communities of Maisí, San Antonio and Imías, where a bridge was washed out, also were hard hit. The meteorological station in Maisí measured 20.7 inches of rainfall over a 24-hour period and the city of Guantánamo recorded 11.8 inches of rain.
To prevent further damage, electrical power was cut off in the hurricane zone before the passage of Matthew, Cubadebate reported.
At the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, base spokeswoman Julie Ann Ripley said that damage was “minimal. The airport seems fine. The harbor, we've got the security boats out running.”
Damage at the Detention Center Zone where 61 war on terror captives are held also was reported to be minimal.
Ripley said workers were clearing the ferry landings of debris in anticipation of resumption of ferry traffic connecting the two portions of the base that straddle Guantánamo Bay.
But timing was still uncertain on the return of the 700 family members who were evacuated in military cargo aircraft to the Florida Panhandle over the weekend. With the storm expected to hit the Eastern Seaboard, Ripley said, the focus was on Hurricane preparation there.
On Wednesday, the Cuban government put recovery plans into effect in Santiago de Cuba, Holguín and Guantánamo. Damages and the needs of affected communities were being assessed. The Empresa Omnibus Nacionales announced that suspended bus service on routes from the western part of the island to the east would be restored as of 5 a.m. Thursday and on east-west routes at noon.
Kenneth Merten, the U.S. State Department’s special coordinator for Haiti, said the administration had been in touch with the Cuban government, as well as the governments of other Caribbean nations hit by Matthew, to offer assistance. Cuba has routinely rejected such offers in the past, but the response could be different now that the United States and Cuba have reestablished diplomatic relations.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami reported maximum sustained winds of 140 mph and 20-foot waves when Matthew made landfall on the island Tuesday evening. By 6 a.m. Wednesday, Matthew had moved 75 miles north of Baracoa but the effects of the hurricane — strong winds, downpours in mountainous areas, and storm surges along the northern and southern coasts — were still being felt during the day.
During the height of the storm, journalists from radio station La Voz del Sol in Baracoa and Primada Visión posted continuously on Facebook.
“The walls of the station have been shaking and it just felt like something was falling. Of the paladar (private restaurant) in front, I think there’s very little standing, very sad. We were praying that the sea wouldn’t reach the station; it didn’t happen but…. Now it’s calm, there is no rain, no wind. We are in the eye of the hurricane.”
Miami Herald staffer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.