With waves already pounding over the famous Malecón seawall in Havana, the Cuban government organized a last-minute evacuation of residents living in low-lying areas prone to flooding.
The emergency evacuation came after Cuban meteorologist José Rubiera forecast that waves stirred up by Hurricane Irma could climb as high as 30 feet off the coast of Havana and sea penetrations would begin on Saturday afternoon and continue until Sunday.
At 5:00 PM, Irma had begun moving away from Cuba and toward the South Florida Keys, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, and its center was 50 miles east-northeast of the island’s Varadero tourist resort area.
The capital had been relatively unconcerned about the dangers of Irma, which initially was projected to affect the east and center of the island. The hurricane devastated the north coast of central Cuba, but its slow travel slightly further west, forced Havana to face one of its worst fears: the penetration of the sea.
The Civil Defense was quick to declare a storm emergency for the provinces of Havana, Artemisa and Mayabeque on Saturday. In the capital city, residents of Old Havana, Central Havana, Vedado, Miramar, Santa Fe and East Havana were urged to evacuate immediately.
More than 10,000 people were to be evacuated from Central Havana, a local official told Radio Reloj late Saturday, but some families had “resisted.” Central Havana is one of the most densely populated municipalities of the capital and most of its buildings are in poor condition.
In Vedado, at least 700 people had to be evacuated, an official told state television, adding that there were 50 buses available to transport those fleeing. To the east of Havana, in Santa Cruz del Norte, 1,800 people also had been evacuated.
Cuban television was slow to broadcast images of along north coast of the country, which was hit hard during Friday night and much of Saturday.
The town of Caibarién woke up to flooded streets. A journalist from Ciego de Ávila reported flooding in the town of Júcaro, as well as damaged homes and roofs. In Yaguajay, the newspaper Granma reported “partial and total collapses of roofs in houses and other buildings, significant effects on agriculture, fallen electric poles and disruptions on almost all access roads.”
Matanzas lost electricity on Saturday afternoon. But the east of the country, coastal cities such as Baracoa and Gibara took the worst hit, with floods, battered seawalls and destroyed homes. Several towns also were reported “incommunicado” near Punta de Maisí, the easternmost point of the island.
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