Waves as high as 23 feet began crashing over seawalls in eastern Cuban towns early Friday, causing widespread flooding and power outages as Hurricane Irma moved westward along Cuba’s northern coast.
The island took an indirect hit as Irma’s eye remained well off the coast and took aim at Florida. Most of the damage was expected to come from storm surges and towering waves that caused coastal flooding from Gibara to Baracoa. Heavy rain also pelted the northern coast, according to Cuba’s weather service.
At 5 p.m. Friday, the center of Irma — now a Category 4 hurricane — was 195 miles east of Caibarién in Villa Clara province, moving toward the west at 12 mph. Hurricane conditions are expected to continue within the north central coastal area through Saturday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Rainfall of 10 to 15 inches was expected in northern Cuba with isolated accumulations of up to 20 inches, which could cause flash floods and mudslides.
As Irma swirled off its shores, Cuba celebrated the feast day of its patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. In an irony on a day when angry seas were buffeting Cuba, the small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that would become venerated as the island’s patron saint was found bobbing in the Bay of Nipe after a violent storm in 1612. When three salt collectors fished her out, miraculously neither the statue nor the virgin’s clothing appeared to be wet.
Among the first cities to be pounded was Baracoa on Cuba’s eastern tip as swells leaped the seawall and began flowing into the city, flooding streets. Electricity also went out in the historic city that had been ravaged by Hurricane Matthew last year.
“Luckily we have only experienced rains, sea penetrations and some winds ... but sincerely, nothing compared to what we were expecting,” Radio Baracoa posted on its Facebook page Friday. More than 25,000 people from the city were evacuated to safer areas.
Last year, Matthew reduced many homes to tinder, collapsed roads, took out nearly an entire 656-foot bridge and severely damaged the electrical grid as it tore through Baracoa.
Arelis Alba Coba, a journalist for La Voz del Toa, told the Cuban website CubaDebate that rivers in the Baracoa region had begun to rise. “The civil defense has just told people who are protected or evacuated that they must not return to their homes because there is still danger and we continue under a hurricane alarm.”
In Gibara, more than half the population was evacuated to safer areas as waves well over 20 feet came ashore, depositing stones and rubble in the streets and flooding the hospital, which had been previously evacuated, Cuban state media reported.
Although Irma’s maximum sustained winds were near 155 mph as the hurricane sideswiped Cuba on Friday afternoon, the island didn’t receive Irma’s full force. Tropical-storm-force winds of 37 to 53 miles per hour were reported with gusts of up to 68 mph in some areas.
As the hurricane continued its northwestward march, winds were expected to pick up with speeds of up to 62 mph and higher gusts along Cuba’s northeast coast.
A hurricane warning was in effect at 5 p.m. Friday for the provinces of Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, and Villa Clara in Cuba’s central region. Cuba declared a state of alarm in Villa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Cienfuegos and Matanzas provinces. The capital, Havana, was placed under a state of alert as were the western provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque.
Cuban civil defense forces evacuated tens of thousands of people in low-lying areas along Cuba’s northern coast, but six dolphins from the Delfinario in the resort island of Cayo Guillermo also were among the evacuees. They were wrapped in wet towels and taken out by helicopter to Cienfuegos so they wouldn’t be harmed by Irma.
Tourists were evacuated from the many beach resorts that dot Cuba’s northern coast cays and bused to destinations as far away as Varadero, according to ACN, the Cuban news agency. More than 17,600 visitors had been lodged in hotels and private homes in the Jardines del Rey area, the main tourism complex in the country.
Earlier this week, Cubans worked feverishly to bring in the rice harvest, move cattle to higher ground and harvest and distribute bananas from low-lying areas of Granma province so they wouldn’t go to waste, according to Cuban state media.
Even as Cuba waited to see what Irma would do at home, it sent a team of electrical linesmen to Antigua to repair damages from Irma.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi