Eastern Cuba braced Tuesday for a swipe by Hurricane Matthew as bands of heavy rain and wind began to whip the island’s easternmost communities in the early afternoon.
José Rubinera, Cuba’s chief hurricane forecaster, said in a televised update that Matthew was expected to make landfall between Cajobabo and the city of Guantánamo, which sits near the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and would exit between the communities of Moa and Banes on the island’s northern coast around midnight.
He said tropical storm force winds could affect Cuba as far west as Camagüey and Ciego de Avila.
“We’re very worried. It’s very sad and painful that a hurricane is arriving and could destroy the little that we have,” Yoandy Beltran Gamboa said in a phone call from Guantánamo.
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Cuba has made extensive storm preparations in eastern provinces from Camagüey to Guantánamo, evacuating hundreds of thousands of people from cays and other low-lying or insecure areas, transferring 1,300 tourists staying in Camagüey, Granma and Holguín to safer areas in the center of the island, preparing trains carrying earth movers and equipment to restore power, and removing trees, branches and stoplights that could become projectiles.
In advance of the storm, U.S. military cargo planes evacuated 700 family members from the Guantánamo base to a “safe haven” in Pensacola.
As part of the preparations, the local newspaper Venceremos reported that authorities had decided to take down antennas, which was expected to affect radio, telephone and cell phone transmissions.
“We are safer here than at home. The important thing is to stay alive,” Inés María Fajardo told Sierra Maestra, the official daily of Santiago, as she played cards in a Santiago shelter.
More than 350 women in the late stages of their pregnancies were transferred to three hospitals in Santiago where they could receive medical attention during Matthew.
Santiago endured a hurricane as recently as Oct. 25, 2012 when Sandy swept ashore, killing 11 people and damaging 137,000 homes and that devastating experience was very much on the minds of Cuban authorities as they made preparations for Matthew.
But residents of the province of Guantánamo, where nearly half the homes are reported to be in poor condition, have not experienced a hurricane in many years. In 1953, Hurricane Flora made landfall about 30 miles east of Guantánamo Bay with winds of 125 mph.
“We are safer here than at home. The important thing is to stay alive,” Inés María Fajardo told Sierra Maestra, the official daily of Santiago, as she played cards in a Santiago shelter set up in the Vocational Art School.
A 1 p.m. weather advisory from Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology placed the hurricane 71.5 miles southeast of Guantánamo and about 109 miles east southeast of Santiago. The National Hurricane Center said that at 2 p.m. it was 55 miles south, southwest of the eastern end of Cuba with sustained winds holding steady at 145 mph.
High winds weren’t the only danger. The National Hurricane Center predicted that storm surges could reach 7 to 11 feet along Cuba’s southern coast, east of Cabo Cruz and intense rainfall and mudslides also were a possibility. High waves also were expected along Cuba’s northern coast, and Cubadebate reported that more than 127,000 people in the province of Holguín along the northern coast had been evacuated to shelters or to stay with family and friends.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro and cabinet members are in eastern Cuba to personally oversee hurricane fortifications and recovery efforts and he told residents of Santiago that he hoped for a quick passage by Matthew and that recovery plans would begin immediately after Matthew had cleared Cuban territory.
Tropical-storm-force winds began to be felt in Cuba early Tuesday and power outages were reported in Baracoa, a city in Guantánamo Province, where waves were already crashing over the seawall in the early afternoon.
San Antonio del Sur, a small town in Guantánamo province also reported that it had no power as of 11 a.m. Tuesday.