With hurricane warnings in effect for four central Cuban provinces with northern coastlines, Cubans completed last-minute preparations and evacuations Thursday in advance of Hurricane Irma.
Irma’s current path keeps the massive storm offshore and models don’t show it making landfall on the island. But the hurricane could still churn up storm surges of 5 to 10 feet and waves reaching as high as 13 to 20 feet, causing flooding in low-lying ares, said Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology.
Irma-induced swells were expected to begin in eastern Cuba around 7 p.m. Thursday and affect the north coast all the way to Havana in coming days.
Models from Cuban forecasters show Irma coming closest to Cuban territory late Friday and Saturday morning as it moves past the Archipelago of Sabana-Camagüey and north coast resort areas at Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo. The U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay in southeastern Cuba isn’t expected to receive any destructive winds and the 5,000 residents of the outpost plan to shelter in place.
As Irma curves northwest, Cuba may escape the brunt of the storm’s 175 mph sustained winds., but on Thursday afternoon Cuba issued hurricane warnings for the provinces of Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara. A hurricane watch was in effect for Guantánamo, Holguín, Las Tunas and Matanzas and tropical storm warnings remained in effect for three eastern Cuba provinces.
Cuba’s National Civil Defense Council had already declared a state of alarm for Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Holguín, Las Tunas, Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila provinces.
WPLG Local 10 News, which has a reporter on the ground in Villa Clara province, reported that classes had been suspended and evacuations had started. In Caibarién, a Villa Clara city known for its sandy beaches, many residents were using bici-taxis to take prized possessions inland as Irma approached.
Granma, the newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, reported that civil defense councils began preparing evacuation shelters and laying in stocks of food and drinking water on Wednesday. Las Tunas province swung into action with the production of four tons of crackers and transported sugar stocks at the province’s port to safer locations.
According to carefully drawn up preparedness plans, Cubans took on garbage collection duties, cleaned out sewers and drainage systems, and made sure that water tanks elevated on roofs were secure.
By Saturday, Irma is expected to dump four to 10 inches of rainfall on eastern and central Cuba with isolated downpours of up to 15 inches.
The U.S. State Department warned American travelers Wednesday that they should begin leaving the island.
American Airlines has waived change fees for trips to the six cities it serves in Cuba — Cienfuegos, Camagüey, Havana, Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero for passengers who bought their tickets by Monday and were scheduled to travel from Monday to Sept. 12. American won’t charge a change fee if passengers can rebook their flights to the same cities through Sept. 15.
American’s last flight out of Miami International Airport is scheduled to depart at 3:49 p.m. Friday to Dallas/Fort Worth and all flights have been canceled on Saturday and Sunday. Cuba’s National airline, Cubana de Aviación, is suspending all flights Friday except two scheduled to go to Gerona and Cancún, Mexico.
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